How Reducing Payroll Taxes Can Encourage Employment

February 3, 2010

Today CBO released a letter to Senator Robert Casey, Jr., in response to questions he asked about policies that could be adopted to increase employment. Specifically, Senator Casey was interested in a policy option to reduce employers payroll taxes for firms that increase their payroll, and how different design elements of this type of policy might affect its impact on employment.

In CBOs January 2010 publication, Policies for Increasing Economic Growth and Employment in 2010 and 2011, the agency analyzed the effects on employment of several policy options, including giving employers a one-year, nonrefundable credit against their payroll tax liability for increasing their payrolls in 2010 from their 2009 levels. (To finance Social Security, employers and employees each pay 6.2 percent of an employees annual earnings up to a maximum.) Such a tax cut would lead to increased employment through a number of channels. For example, some firms would hire more people because hiring would be less expensive; others would lower prices to increase sales, thus spurring production and increasing the demand for labor; still others would increase compensation for employees, which would encourage more spending.

CBO measured the effect of that policy (and others) on employment as the cumulative effect on years of full-time-equivalent employment for each dollar of a policys total budgetary cost. (A year of full-time-equivalent employment is 40 hours of employment per week for one year.) CBO estimated that, through its effects on wages, prices, and profits, the policy would add 8 to 18 cumulative years of full-time-equivalent employment in 2010 and 2011 per million dollars of total budgetary cost, measured in terms of lost revenues. Thus, the budgetary cost of increasing employment by one full-time person for one year would probably be between $56,000 and $125,000. Although such a policy would have economic benefits in the short run, it would also add to already large projected budget deficits. Unless offsetting actions were taken to reverse the accumulation of additional government debt, future incomes would tend to be lower than they otherwise would have been.

Policymakers could structure legislation that reduced payroll taxes for firms that increase employment using various combinations of caps on the total amount of the tax benefit a firm could receive, limits on the size of firms that would receive the tax cut, methods of measuring payroll growth, and other elements. In todays letter, CBO separately analyzed several key policy design elements and concluded that, per dollar of budgetary cost:

  • Capping the size of the tax cut for individual firms would decrease the employment effect;
  • Restricting eligibility to small firms would decrease the employment effect;
  • Limiting the eligible wage base would not change the employment effect, but would alter the types of employment fostered by the policy;
  • Basing the tax cuts on the total payroll in 2010 for new hires rather than on the net change in a firms payroll from 2009 to 2010 would have a similar effect on employment;
  • Offering larger tax cuts in economically depressed areas would probably not significantly alter the effect on employment;
  • Raising awareness of the tax change would increase the employment effect; and
  • Increasing the complexity of the tax change would reduce the employment effect.