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Warren & Chu Call Out IRS Auditors for Targeting Households Making $25K or Less

Households with incomes below $25,000 are five times more likely to be audited than everyone else.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren attends a Senate Armed Services hearing on Capitol Hill on March 15, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

In a letter sent to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and Treasury Department on Tuesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Rep. Judy Chu (D-California) demanded that the agency explain why audits of low-income taxpayers have doubled over the past year.

The letter, addressed to IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, points out that IRS audits of low-income earners doubled in fiscal year 2021 and that the practice of disproportionately auditing this group goes against President Joe Biden’s pledge to not increase tax scrutiny of people making less than $400,000 in income.

As the IRS has seen its funding decline over the years, thanks to Republicans, the agency has increased its audits on the poorest Americans, especially people who qualify for the earned income tax credit, or those making less than $25,000 a year, typically.

This is largely because it’s less resource intensive for the IRS to examine the finances of low-income taxpayers than to attempt to untangle the assets of the ultra-wealthy. The rate of audits for low-income Americans is still increasing, the lawmakers say, a concerning trend as the wealth gap grows ever wider in the U.S.

“We know the IRS suffers from underfunding, and we are working to secure substantial, permanent funding so the IRS can take on the tax cheating of giant corporations and the ultra-wealthy. But, we also urge you to move swiftly to end the targeting of low-income Americans,” the letter reads. “The most vulnerable taxpayers should not shoulder the burden of insufficient IRS enforcement funding simply because they require fewer resources to audit.”

In a hearing last month, Rettig denied that the poorest Americans were audited at a higher rate, calling the assertion “absolutely 100 percent false.” But the lawmakers point out that the IRS commissioner was relying on old data; more recent data from the last four years tells a different story.

A recent analysis of IRS data by Syracuse University researchers found that low-income households making less than $25,000 a year were audited at five times the rate than all other tax-paying households in fiscal year 2021 and double the rate for fiscal year 2018, when low-income earners were 2.5 times more likely to be audited. Out of every 1,000 tax returns, 13 returns from people earning less than $25,000 were audited, while only 2.6 returns from people making over $25,000 went through an audit.

People who qualified for the earned income tax credit were the subjects of over half of the most common type of audit in FY2021, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) researchers found. Fifty-four percent of correspondence audits, which are conducted by mail rather than face-to-face, were targeted at people making less than $25,000 last year.

Further, the way that these audits are conducted makes it especially unfair and difficult for these taxpayers to navigate the process, TRAC pointed out. Because the IRS sets up its audits of low-income households to take the least resources possible, the audit subjects are also given the lowest level of customer service. This issue has become worse in recent years as the IRS has been especially overburdened due in part to pandemic programs and chronic underfunding.

As Warren and Chu point out, however, correspondence audits are actually quite resource intensive, requiring the use of legal and other resources even though they are supposed to be less burdensome for the agency to complete.

The lawmakers have asked the Treasury Department to explore ways to better enforce tax compliance for corporations and the wealthy. Earlier this year, Senator Warren led a Democratic call for more funding for the IRS as the agency warned that 2022 might be a tough filing year for taxpayers. They called for a minimum increase of 14 percent to the agency’s annual funding as well as an $80 billion investment over the next decade.

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