American ExpressAmerican ExpressAmerican ExpressAmerican ExpressAmerican Express
United StatesChange Country

What is the Earned Income Tax Credit?

The federal earned income tax credit aims to help low- and lower-middle-income working families raise living standards by reducing their taxes up to $6,557.

By Karen Lynch | American Express Credit Intel Freelance Contributor

6 Min Read | June 26, 2020 in Life



$61 billion in federal earned income tax credits were issued in 2019 to help low- and lower-middle-income families boost their standard of living.

Federal and state credits depend on your level of earnings, marital status, and number of children.

The more you earn, the lower the credit, which phases out completely at just under $56,000 in income.

Earned income tax credits aim to reduce poverty—particularly in working families. Federal earned income credits helped some 25 million American workers and their families get a tax break or refund in 2019.1 Meanwhile, many states and some cities also provide earned income tax credits.


Who Can Qualify for an Earned Income Credit?

You only qualify for the credit if you work to earn an income. That’s the “earned” part of its name. Then, your income level, marital status, and number of “qualifying” children are the three biggest factors in determining whether you get a tax credit and for how much. Although you don’t have to have a child to be entitled to a credit, you are less likely to qualify if you don’t. And if you qualify, you will get a much smaller credit without children.


Check out the accompanying table to see how the IRS breaks down potential earned income tax credits for 2019, based on those three major factors.


Earned Income Tax Credit Phases for 20191,2

Tax Filing Status Max Credit Amount Minimum/Maximum Income to Get Any Credit Minimum/Maximum Income to Get Max Credit
Single, Head of Household, Widowed, no children $529 $1 / $15,600 $6,950 / $8,650
Single, etc., 1 child $3,526 $1 / $41,094 $10,350 / $19,050
Single, etc., 2 children $5,828 $1 / $46,703 $15,600 / $19,050
Single, etc., 3 children $6,557 $1 / $50,162 $15,600 / $19,050
Married, no children $529 $1 / $21,370 $6,950 / $14,450
Married, 1 child $3,526 $1 / $46,884 $10,400 / $24,850
Married, 2 children $5,828 $1 / $52,493 $14,600 / $24,850
Married, 3 children $6,557 $1 / $55,952 $14,600 / $24,850

"Earned Income Tax Credit Income Limits and Maximum Credit Amounts," IRS
Earned Income Credit Table,” Internal Revenue Service


The next logical question, then, is what’s a qualifying child? The IRS has certain relationship, age, and residency requirements. For instance, the child must be a son, daughter, adopted child, stepchild, foster child, or a descendent of any of these.2 Online tools can help determine whether your child qualifies.3


You might also ask, what’s income? For the purposes of an earned income tax credit, it’s money you earn in a given year either working for someone or running your own business. If you’re also an investor, your investment income can only be $3,600 or less in 2019. (Figures like this one tend to change from year to year, and are published on the IRS website.)


How Does the Earned Income Tax Credit Work?

You have to file for the credit to receive it. Obvious, right? Yet the IRS says about 20% of eligible people don’t claim the federal credit. That’s in part because many low-income workers’ earnings are so low that they owe no federal tax,4 and also because workers move in and out of eligibility for the earned income tax credit based on changes in marital, parental, and financial status. But earned income credits are refundable, meaning that you can receive money even if you owe no taxes, as long as you file for them.5 If the credit you are allowed exceeds the taxes you’ve paid during the year (such as those withheld from your paycheck), the IRS will send you the balance.6


And tax credits are generally worth more than tax deductions. Tax credits directly reduce the amount of tax you owe, while deductions only lower your taxable income. If you were in a 25% tax bracket, for instance, a $1,000 credit would lower your tax bill by $1,000, whereas a $1,000 tax deduction would only drop it by $250.7


Federal earned income tax credits are calculated on a bell curve, climbing from $1 in income to about $10,000 to $14,000 (depending on filing status and number of children). The credit then plateaus until you reach about $19,000 to $25,000 in earned income (again, depending on those same factors), and then phases out (declining even to zero, for only one or two children) as it approaches the maximum income of about $46,000 to $56,000.8 Children make a big difference; for example, a married couple with about $44,000 in income could get around $300 if they have one child, but over $1,500 if they have two, and over $2,000 if they have three or more. Here’s the range published by the IRS:

  • $11 to $6,557 with three or more qualifying children
  • $10 to $5,828 with two qualifying children
  • $9 to $3,526 with one qualifying child
  • $2 to $529 with no qualifying children


The IRS issued a total of $61 billion in earned income tax credits in 2019, for a per-family average of $2,500.9


States Offer Earned Income Credits

If you qualify for a federal credit, you might also be entitled to a state earned income tax credit in 29 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, DC. State requirements often mirror federal requirements, with some exceptions. There are online tools you can use to learn more about your state.10


Many states calculate their earned income tax credit benefits as a straight percent of the federal credit—from 3% in Montana to 125% in South Carolina.11 In California, whose differences include lower age limits (18 years of age), someone making under $30,000 a year could receive a state credit of up to $1,605 to $2,982, if they have one to three or more children, and $240 if they have none.12 Some local governments, such as New York City, also offer earned income tax credits.13 A New York City resident (within the federal income limits, filing jointly, with three or more children) could combine federal, state, and local credits to be eligible for up to $9,000.


Qualifying for the federal earned income tax credit might also indicate that you qualify for child tax credits and others. Check out “What is the Child Tax Credit.”


Also helpful: Calculators14 and free tax preparation help15 are available online and in person, from the IRS and some state governments. Some tax software packages also include the earned income tax credit.


Earned Income Credit Policy

In general, all tax credits for individuals represent the government’s attempt to encourage certain behaviors in Americans, to achieve specific goals. The earned income tax credit is designed to reward people who enter and stay in the workforce, with the aim of both improving their family’s standard of living and contributing to the nation’s economic growth. Some congressmembers are looking to expand the population that qualifies. For example, the Building Our Opportunities to Survive and Thrive Act (BOOST) would expand the earned income credit to those who earn no income and have no children. The proposed law recognizes that nonworking caregivers for elderly parents, disabled veterans, students, and seniors are among the groups who are currently excluded from the benefit.16


Details of the earned income tax credit change from year to year, but the credit itself has demonstrated staying power. The federal credit has been in place since 1975; Rhode Island was the first state to enact an earned income tax credit, in 1986.17


The Takeaway

Earned income tax credits can range from a few hundred dollars to more than $6,500, and aim to help working families get tax breaks or refunds. Your eligibility depends on your income level, marital status, and number of children. Even if your earnings are so low that you pay little or no income taxes, you might be entitled to this credit—making it akin to a grant. Online tools and free tax preparation advice are available to help you figure it out.

Karen Lynch

Karen Lynch is a journalist who has covered global business, technology, finance, and related public policy issues for more than 30 years.


All Credit Intel content is written by freelance authors and commissioned and paid for by American Express. 

The material made available for you on this website, Credit Intel, is for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide legal, tax or financial advice. If you have questions, please consult your own professional legal, tax and financial advisors.