There has always been an underground economy in the US, but most of us have thought of it as essentially illegal stuff - drugs, mob, gambling, etc. That may be the smallest part of it, as effects of the Great Recession drag on.
Another clue to the underground economy comes from government data on the percentage of Americans who forego banking services, finding other ways to handle their money. The percentage of Americans who are "unbanked" or "underbanked" rose from 25.8 percent in 2009 to 28.3 percent in 2011. Some of those people may be low-income customers getting hit with a slew of new banking fees, forcing them to reject traditional banking. But others may be choosing to keep their money out of the mainstream financial system so that nobody checks up on them.There are many things that could be causing this, but taxes and regulations usually get most of the blame. Also employers keep hired workers in the gray market to enjoy significant advantages over the formal labor market.
We tend to think of the underground economy as a place where Mafiosi and other types of criminals operate. But that's more or less a constant. The new underground economy may entail a lot of people doing honest work, such as freelancers and consultants who used to be full-time professionals, computer-repair people laid off from corporate IT departments, home remodelers benefiting from a revived housing sector, people running eBay business, and retirees earning a few extra bucks by running errands for busy parents. The Internet obviously makes it easier to work from home these days, another boon for the gray market. [More]
The increasing importance of the gray economy isn’t only a reaction to the downturn: studies suggest that the sector has been growing steadily over the years. In 1992, the I.R.S. estimated that the government was losing $80 billion a year in income-tax revenue. Its estimate for 2006 was $385 billion—almost five times as much (and still an underestimate, according to Feige’s numbers). The U.S. is certainly a long way from, say, Greece, where tax evasion is a national sport and the shadow economy accounts for twenty-seven per cent of G.D.P. But the forces pushing people to work off the books are powerful. Feige points to the growing distrust of government as one important factor. The desire to avoid licensing regulations, which force people to jump through elaborate hoops just to get a job, is another. Most important, perhaps, are changes in the way we work. As Baumohl put it, “For businesses, the calculus of hiring has fundamentally changed.” Companies have got used to bringing people on as needed and then dropping them when the job is over, and they save on benefits and payroll taxes by treating even full-time employees as independent contractors. Casual employment often becomes under-the-table work; the arrangement has become a way of life in the construction industry. In a recent California survey of three hundred thousand contractors, two-thirds said they had no direct employees, meaning that they did not need to pay workers’-compensation insurance or payroll taxes. In other words, for lots of people off-the-books work is the only job available.To be fair, I resisted for most of my career hiring full-time help largely because of the paperwork headache and liability issues employment adds. I did handle part-timers by the book (mostly).
Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociologist at Columbia and the author of a study of the underground economy, thinks that many workers, particularly younger ones, have become comfortable with casual work arrangements. “We have seen the rise of a new generation of people who are much more used to doing things in a freelance way,” he said. “That makes them more amenable to unregulated work. And they seem less concerned about security, which they equate with rigidity.” The growing importance of services in the economy is also crucial. Tutors, nannies, yoga teachers, housecleaners, and the like are often paid in cash, which is hard for the I.R.S. to track. In a 2006 study, the economist Catherine Haskins found that between eighty and ninety-seven per cent of nannies were paid under the table. [More]
But it is the whacking size of this hidden economy that interests me. While our economy could be doing much better, it may not be doing as badly as we think. We're just not getting the tax revenues from it we should be.
Maybe a carbon tax or other consumption type taxes (VAT) would be a better way to fund government than increasingly hard-to-track income.