July 21, 2015

Shaming Tax Delinquents: Does it Work?

It just might, particularly for tax delinquents with relatively small debts, according to a recent study, as reported by NPR’s Shankar Vedantam. 

As Vedantam explains, the researchers conducted a field experiment to test whether shaming penalties work in reducing tax delinquencies.  They mailed letters to tax delinquents in Kentucky, Kansas, and Wisconsin. Some of the letters warned recipients about the interest and penalties they were incurring from not paying, while others listed their name and the names of other tax delinquents in the area and the amount each of them owed.  The letters to the second group implied that this information was being shared with their neighbors.

The study found that the shaming letters increased the likelihood of a taxpayer paying his or her debt by almost 21%. The letters also appeared to be more effective for smaller debts.  As Vedantam notes, “presumably, people care what their neighbors think when they owe $200 or maybe $2,000. But when they owe $20,000 . . . [t]he money's worth more than their reputation.”