Gutting the IRS

Category: Best data-driven reporting (small and large newsrooms)

Country/area: United States

Organisation: ProPublica

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 4 Jan 2019

Credit: Paul Kiel, Hannah Fresques

Project description:

For more than a year, ProPublica has been investigating the calamitous — and mostly ignored — effects of a multiyear de-funding of the IRS. In particular, ProPublica’s 2019 series “Gutting the IRS” demonstrated in multiple ways precisely how the agency’s weakening has benefited the wealthy and their interests while harming the poor. A key part of the project was a stunning online graphic that allowed readers to see the audit rate of every county in the U.S. simply by moving their cursor over the map.

Impact reached:

ProPublica’s reporting led to pressure from Congress on the IRS to reform its auditing practices. The map was displayed during congressional hearings so members of Congress could grill the IRS commissioner as to why residents of impoverished Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, for example, were noticeably more likely to be audited than those in wealthy Palm Beach County, Florida. Alabama Senator Doug Jones cited our findings, calling them “blatantly discriminatory,” in a letter to the IRS commissioner. In a hearing around the same time, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden cited the same findings and demanded that the commissioner come up with a plan to address the problems. Another senator commented, “The map looks like the IRS is targeting black, Hispanic and Native American populations for audit.”

In October, ProPublica followed up with an article that described the agency’s response to the senators’ demand for a plan. The article, “IRS: Sorry, but it’s Just Easier and Cheaper to Audit the Poor,” described how the IRS had effectively thrown up its hands. The article captured the catch-22 — Congress pointing a finger at the IRS and the IRS blaming lack of funding by Congress — this way: “the IRS has no plan and won’t have one until Congress agrees to restore the funding it slashed from the agency over the past nine years — something lawmakers have shown little inclination to do.”

Techniques/technologies used:

Our “Where in The U.S. Are You Most Likely to Be Audited by the IRS?” map project relied on an estimate of the number of audits per county, which was calculated by a former IRS researcher. We decided the researcher’s rates used a denominator that would be confusing for readers, so we recalculated them using a measure that would be easier to describe and understand. (And we got sign-off from the researcher that our method was sound!) We used R to clean the data and combine it with additional data from the IRS. We used Javascript to make the interactive maps. We also open-sourced the data and analysis so others could review and reproduce our methods (Github link is below).

What was the hardest part of this project?

Our main challenge was to render a topic as dry as IRS audit rates into something that would grab attention and spark reform. To do this, we employed two approaches. We transformed the audit data into a story about actual people who lived in actual places, and we experimented with different analyses of the audit groups until we hit on the most potent description of the problem. A story that was just generally about poor people bearing the brunt of the audits turned into a story about people in the Mississippi Delta and Alabama. And our analysis allowed us to clearly say, as we wrote, “It’s Getting Worse: The IRS Now Audits Poor Americans at About the Same Rate as the Top 1%.” Both of these techniques clearly framed the problem and eventually galvanized interest from Congress.

What can others learn from this project?

It really is possible to get people interested in taxes! It just takes the right framing.

As far as design of our audit map, we decided the clearest presentation would be two separate maps, one for areas audited more commonly than average, and one for those audited less frequently. That design decision made the maps easy for people to understand quickly, and had a big impact on the success of the story.

Project links: