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Tax Policy Center
   Entry 8 of 13  

Economic Stimulus: How do automatic stabilizers work?

Automatic stabilizers are features of the tax and transfer systems that tend by their design to offset fluctuations in economic activity without direct intervention by policymakers. When incomes are high, tax liabilities rise and eligibility for government benefits falls, without any change in the tax code or other legislation. Conversely, when incomes slip, tax liabilities drop and more families become eligible for government transfer programs, such as food stamps and unemployment insurance, that help buttress their income.

  • Automatic stabilizers are quantitatively important at the federal level. A 2000 study estimated that reduced income and payroll tax collection offsets about 8 percent of any decline in GDP. Additional stabilization from unemployment insurance, although smaller in total magnitude than that from the tax system, is estimated to be eight times as effective per dollar of lost revenue because more of the money is spent rather than saved.
  • Automatic stabilizers also arise in the tax and transfer systems of state and local governments. However, state constitutions generally require balanced budgets, which can force countervailing changes in outlays and tax rules. These requirements do not force complete balance on an annual basis: they generally focus on budget projections rather than realizations, so deficits can still occur when economic conditions are unexpectedly weak. In addition, many governments have "rainy day" funds that they can draw down during periods of budget stringency. Even so, most state and local governments respond to an economic slowdown by legislating lower spending or higher taxes. These actions are contractionary, working at cross-purposes with the automatic stabilizers.
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