Archive for the ‘Federalism’ Category

Federalism is great for many reasons. When you have dozens of states with the freedom to choose different policies, you get lots of innovation and diversity, which helps identify policies that work.

You also can minimize the cost of mistakes. When a policy error occurs in one state (for example, government-run healthcare in Vermont), it quickly becomes obvious and the damage can be contained and maybe even reversed. But when a mistake is made nationally (such as Obamacare), it’s not as easy to pinpoint why the economy is weakening and fixing the error thus becomes more difficult.

And it should go without saying that federalism is desirable because it facilitates and enables competition among jurisdictions. And that limits the power of governments to impose bad policy.

These are some of the reasons why I’m a huge fan of the Tax Foundation’s State Business Tax Climate Index. It’s a rigorous publication that calculates the good and bad features of every state’s tax system. It then add together all that data to generate a very helpful ranking of the nation’s best and worst state tax systems.

And since that’s what people care most about, let’s cut to the chase and look at the states at the top and the bottom of the Index.

There are a couple of things which should be obvious from these two lists.

First, it’s a very good idea to be part of the no-income-tax club. It’s no coincidence that 7 out of the top 10 states don’t have that pernicious levy.

Second, perhaps the biggest lesson from the states in the bottom 10 is that it’s basically impossible for a state with a big government to have a good tax system.

Third (and here’s where I’m going to be a contrarian), I’m not sure that Wyoming and Alaska really deserve their high rankings. Both states use energy severance taxes to finance relatively large public sectors. And while it’s true that energy severance taxes don’t do as much damage to a state’s competitiveness as other revenue sources, I nonetheless think there should be an asterisk next to those two states.

So I actually put South Dakota in first place (though I realize I’m implicitly incorporating government spending into the equation while the Tax Foundation is only measuring the tax environment for business).

Now that we’ve hit the main highlights, here’s some explanatory information from the Index.

…the Index is designed to show how well states structure their tax systems, and provides a roadmap for improvement. …The absence of a major tax is a common factor among many of the top ten states. …This does not mean, however, that a state cannot rank in the top ten while still levying all the major taxes. Indiana and Utah, for example, levy all of the major tax types, but do so with low rates on broad bases. The states in the bottom 10 tend to have a number of afflictions in common: complex, non-neutral taxes with comparatively high rates.

And here’s some details about the Index’s methodology.

The Index…comparing the states on over 100 different variables in the five major areas of taxation (corporate taxes, individual income taxes, sales taxes, unemployment insurance taxes, and property taxes)… Using the economic literature as our guide, we designed these five components to score each state’s business tax climate…The five components are not weighted equally… This improves the explanatory power of the State Business Tax Climate Index as a whole. …this edition is the 2016 Index and represents the tax climate of each state as of July 1, 2015, the first day of fiscal year 2016 for most states.

Here’s a map showing the ranking of every state.

Top-10 states are in blue and bottom-10 states are in orange. At the risk of repeating myself, notice how zero-income tax states rank highly.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page combed through the report for highlights. The biggest success story in recent years is North Carolina, which joined the flat tax club.

…North Carolina, which in 2013 slashed its top 7.75% income tax to a flat 5.75% and its corporate rate to 5% from 6.9%. The former 44th is now ranked 15th.

Given Martin O’Malley’s horrible record in Maryland, I’m surprised that he hasn’t picked up more support from crazy lefties in the Democratic Party.

As Governor of Maryland from 2007 to 2015, Democrat Martin O’Malley increased some 40 taxes including the corporate rate to 8.25% from 7% and the sales tax to 6% from 5%.

And here’s some good news from an unexpected place.

The trophy for most-improved this year goes to Illinois, which jumped to 23rd from 31st… The Tax Foundation notes that the leap occurred “due to the sunset of corporate and individual income tax increases”… First-year Republican Governor Bruce Rauner has let the income-tax rate lapse to 3.75% from 5% and the corporate rate to 7.75% from 9.5%, though Democrats are trying to push them back up.

Given how the tax hike backfired, let’s hope the Governor holds firm in this fight.

Now let’s return to some of the analysis in the Tax Foundation’s Index. Here’s some of the academic evidence on the importance of low tax burdens.

Helms concluded that a state’s ability to attract, retain, and encourage business activity is significantly affected by its pattern of taxation. Furthermore, tax increases significantly retard economic growth when the revenue is used to fund transfer payments. …Bartik (1989) provides strong evidence that taxes have a negative impact on business startups. He finds specifically that property taxes, because they are paid regardless of profit, have the strongest negative effect on business. Bartik’s econometric model also predicts tax elasticities of –0.1 to –0.5 that imply a 10 percent cut in tax rates will increase business activity by 1 to 5 percent. …Agostini and Tulayasathien (2001)…determined that for “foreign investors, the corporate tax rate is the most relevant tax in their investment decision.” …Mark, McGuire, and Papke (2000) found that taxes are a statistically significant factor in private-sector job growth. Specifically, they found that personal property taxes and sales taxes have economically large negative effects on the annual growth of private employment. …the consensus among recent literature is that state and local taxes negatively affect employment levels. Harden and Hoyt conclude that the corporate income tax has the most significant negative impact on the rate of growth in employment. Gupta and Hofmann (2003)…model covered 14 years of data and determined that firms tend to locate property in states where they are subject to lower income tax burdens.

The message is that all the major revenue sources – income, sales, and property – can have negative effects.

Which explains, of course, why it’s important to control state government spending.

And one final point to make is that we should do everything possible to shrink the size of the central government in Washington and transfer activities to the private sector or states. This isn’t because states don’t make mistakes, but rather because competition between states will produce far better results than a one-size-fits-all approach from Washington.

P.S. A study from German economists finds that decentralization limits economically harmful redistribution outlays.

P.P.S. And a study from the IMF reveals that decentralized government is more competent and efficient.

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I’ve argued (repeatedly) that we should abolish the Department of Transportation and allow states to make decisions on how to fund and whether to fund transportation projects.

As an interim measure to control federal spending, involvement, and intervention, I’ve explained that Congress should do nothing to increase revenues into the highway trust fund.

Supporters of centralization disagree, arguing that there would be inadequate transportation funding if the federal government doesn’t have a large – and growing – role. Most of them want a higher gas tax to finance an expansion of federal transportation spending.

I’ve never thought this claim made sense. After all, how do you magically get more roads built by sending money in a leaky budget to Washington, only to then turn around and send those funds in a leaky budget back to the states? Seems to me like that’s nothing more than a unsavory recipe for an additional layer of bureaucracy and lobbying.

Well, we now have some very powerful evidence from a report in the Washington Post that states will act – at least once they conclude that “free” money from Uncle Sam won’t be as forthcoming.

While Congress remains stalled on a long-term plan for funding highways, state lawmakers and governors aren’t waiting around. Nearly one-third of the states have approved measures this year that could collectively raise billions of dollars through higher fuel taxes, vehicle fees and bonds to repair old bridges and roads and relieve traffic congestion, according to an analysis by The Associated Press. The surge of activity means at least half of the states — from coast to coast, in both Republican and Democratic areas — now have passed transportation funding measures since 2013. And the movement may not be done yet. …The widespread focus on transportation funding comes as state officials are becoming frustrated by federal inaction in helping to repair roads and bridges described as crumbling, aging and unsafe.

By the way, I have no idea if these states are making sensible decisions. Indeed, based on what was proposed (and rejected) in Michigan, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that many of these initiative contain wasteful pork-barrel projects (just like when funded from DC). And my colleague Chris Edwards has poked holes in the assertion that we’re facing an infrastructure crisis.

But who cares? The beauty of federalism is that states are free to make their own decisions so long as they’re playing with their own money.

If they waste the money and make bad choices, at least the damage will be contained. And voters presumably have some ability to change the direction of policy if repeated mistakes are made.

To get a sense of how things would work at the state level with real federalism, here are some excerpts from a column in the Tampa Tribune by Karen Jaroch, a member of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit agency.

…what if you could pay less at the pump? With passage of H.R. 2716 — the Transportation Empowerment Act — this could be possible. H.R. 2716 would devolve the responsibility for our surface transportation programs (including transit) to the states by incrementally decreasing the federal gas tax over five years from 18.3 cents to 3.7 cents per gallon. That reduction would empower the states to fund and manage it — not politicians and Washington bureaucrats. The bill was filed by Florida’s U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Ponte Vedra Beach, and cosponsored by Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, with Sen. Marco Rubio co-sponsoring the bill’s twin in the Senate.

I can understand why Florida lawmakers are especially interested in decentralization.

As you can see from this map and table, the Sunshine State is one of many that lose out because of the redistribution inherent in a centralized scheme.

The real question if why politicians in California, Texas, and Ohio aren’t also pushing for federalism.

Though it’s important to underscore that this issue shouldn’t be determined based on which states get more money or less money. It’s really about getting better decisions when states raise and spend their own money.

Particularly when compared to a very inefficient Washington-centric system, as Ms. Jaroch explains.

Well-heeled lobbyists and those in Congress who would see their power base decline are in opposition. …The feds fund roughly 30 percent of Florida’s transportation infrastructure; however, the costly regulations, red tape and strings they tack on permeate the process almost universally. As a board member of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART), I’ve witnessed the agency routinely shackled by federal handcuffs that are common when accepting federal funds. H.R. 2716 would wrest control from D.C. bureaucrats and politicians in 49 other states that have never commuted on our streets and roads and instead empower state and local agencies like HART that are better positioned to make these decisions. …A new state-led process would be controlled entirely by Floridians and would be absent the horse trading and infighting between 49 other states, two houses of Congress, a president of a different party and a myriad of federal agencies.

Last but not least, state and local governments will be far less likely to engage in boondoggle spending if they can’t shift some of the cost to Uncle Sam.

P.S. While decentralization is a good first step, the ideal end point is to have more private-sector involvement in transportation.

P.P.S. If you think the federal government’s involvement is bad now, you probably don’t even want to know about some of the ideas floating around Washington for further greedy and intrusive revenue grabs.

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When giving speeches outside the beltway, I sometimes urge people to be patient with Washington. Yes, we need fundamental tax reform and genuine entitlement reform, but there’s no way Congress can make those changes with Obama in the White House.

But there are some areas whether progress is possible, and people should be angry with politicians if they deliberately choose to make bad decisions.

For instance, the corrupt Export-Import Bank has expired and there’s nothing that Obama can do to restore this odious example of corporate welfare. It will only climb from the grave if Republicans on Capitol Hill decide that campaign cash from big corporations is more important than free markets.

Another example of a guaranteed victory – assuming Republicans don’t fumble the ball at the goal line – is that there’s no longer enough gas-tax revenue coming into the Highway Trust Fund to finance big, bloated, and pork-filled transportation spending bills. So if the GOP-controlled Congress simply does nothing, the federal government’s improper and excessive involvement in this sector will shrink.

Unfortunately, Republicans have no desire to achieve victory on this issue. It’s not that there’s a risk of them fumbling the ball on the goal line. By looking for ways to generate more revenue for the Trust Fund, they’re moving the ball in the other direction and trying to help the other team score a touchdown!

The good news is that Republicans backed away from awful proposals to increase the federal gas tax.

But the bad news is that they’re coming up with other ideas to transfer more of our income to Washington. Here’s a look at some of the revenue-generating schemes in the Senate transportation bill.

Since the House and Senate haven’t agreed on how to proceed, it’s unclear which – if any – of these proposals will be implemented.

But one thing that is clear is that the greed for more federal transportation spending is tempting Republicans into giving more power to the IRS.

Republicans and Democrats alike are looking to the IRS as they try to pass a highway bill by the end of the month. Approving stricter tax compliance measure is one of the few areas of agreement between the House and the Senate when it comes to paying for an extension of transportation funding. …the Senate and House are considering policy changes for the IRS ahead of the July 31 transportation deadline. …With little exception, the Senate bill uses the same provisions that were in a five-month, $8 billion extension the House passed earlier this month. The House highway bill, which would fund programs through mid-December, gets about 60 percent of its funding from tax compliance measures. …it’s…something of a shift for Republicans to trust the IRS enough to back the new tax compliance measures. House Republicans opposed similar proposals during a 2014 debate over highway funding, both because they didn’t want to give the IRS extra authority and because they wanted to hold the line on using new revenues to pay for additional spending.

Gee, isn’t it swell that Republicans have “grown in office” since last year.

But this isn’t just an issue of GOPers deciding that the DC cesspool is actually a hot tub. Part of the problem is the way Congress operates.

Simply stated, the congressional committee system generally encourages bad decisions. If you want to understand why there’s no push to scale back the role of the federal government in transportation, just look at the role of the committees in the House and Senate that are involved with the issue.

Both the authorizing committees (the ones that set the policy) and the appropriating committees (the ones that spend the money) are among the biggest advocates of generating more revenue in order to enable continued federal government involvement in transportation.

Why? For the simple reason that allocating transportation dollars is how the members of these committees raise campaign cash and buy votes. As such, it’s safe to assume that politicians don’t get on those committees with the goal of scaling back federal subsidies for the transportation sector.

And this isn’t unique to the committees that deal with transportation.

It’s also a safe bet that politicians that gravitate to the agriculture committees have a strong interest in maintaining the unseemly system of handouts and subsidies that line the pockets of Big Ag. The same is true for politicians that seek out committee slots dealing with NASA. Or foreign aid. Or military bases.

The bottom line is that even politicians who generally have sound views are most likely to make bad decisions on issues that are related to their committee assignments.

So what’s the solution?

Well, it’s unlikely that we’ll see a shift to random and/or rotating committee assignments, so the only real hope is to have some sort of overall cap on spending so that the various committees have to fight with each other over a (hopefully) shrinking pool of funds.

That’s why the Gramm-Rudman law in the 1980s was a step in the right direction. And it’s why the spending caps in today’s Budget Control Act also are a good idea.

Most important, it’s why we should have a limit on all spending, such as what’s imposed by the so-called Debt Brake in Switzerland.

Heck, even the crowd at the IMF has felt compelled to admit spending caps are the only effective fiscal tool.

Maybe, just maybe, a firm and enforceable spending cap will lead politicians in Washington to finally get the federal government out of areas such as transportation (and housing, agriculture, education, etc) where it doesn’t belong.

One can always hope.

In the meantime, since we’re on the topic of transportation decentralization, here’s a map from the Tax Foundation showing how gas taxes vary by states.

This data is useful (for instance, it shows why drivers in New York and Pennsylvania should fill up their tanks in New Jersey), but doesn’t necessarily tell us which states have the best transportation policy.

Are the gas taxes used for roads, or is some of the money siphoned off for boondoggle mass transit projects? Do the states have Project Labor Agreements and other policies that line the pockets of unions and cause needlessly high costs? Is there innovation and flexibility for greater private sector involvement in construction, maintenance, and operation?

But this is what’s good about federalism and why decentralization is so important. The states should be the laboratories of democracy. And when they have genuine responsibility for an issue, it then becomes easier to see which ones are doing a good job.

So yet another reason to shut down the Department of Transportation.

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I wrote just yesterday about new evidence showing that decentralized government is more efficient.

Part of the reason is because local governments are easier for voters to monitor and more likely to reflect the actual preferences of residents.

Another reason is tax competition. It’s relatively easy to “vote with your feet” by moving from one community to another, and this makes it difficult for interest groups and politicians to impose excessive tax burdens.

Now we have some serendipity.

I’m in Gdansk, Poland, for a Liberty Fund seminar on “Economic Growth, Entrepreneurship, and the Future of the Welfare State.”

Two of the readings, by great scholars from the Austrian school of economics, had passages about the importance of decentralization.

In 1960, here’s some of what Friedrich Hayek wrote in his classic, The Constitution of Liberty.

While it has always been characteristic of those favoring an increase in governmental powers to support maximum concentration of these powers, those mainly concerned with individual liberty have generally advocated decentralization. There are strong reasons why action by local authorities offers the next-best solution…it has many of the advantages of private enterprise and fewer of the dangers of coercive action by government. Competition between local authorities or between larger units within an area where there is freedom of movement…will secure most of the advantages of free growth. Though the majority of individuals may never contemplate a change of residence, there will usually be enough people, especially among the young and more enterprising, to make it necessary for the local authorities to provide as good services at a reasonable costs as their competitors. It is usually the authoritarian planner who…supports the centralist tendencies.

I should have remembered that quote from my collection of pro-tax competition statements by Nobel laureates.

In any event, I’m glad my memory was refreshed.

And here’s some of what Ludwig von Mises wrote in his 1944 book, Omnipotent Government. He approached the issue from the opposite direction, explaining that proponents of redistribution needed centralization so their intended victims couldn’t escape by moving across city borders.

Every step toward more government interference and toward more planning means at the same time an expansion of the jurisdiction of the central government. …It is a very significant fact that the adversaries of this trend toward more government control describe their opposition as a fight against Washington…against centralization. …This evolution is not accidental. It is the inevitable outcome of policies of interference and planning. …There can be no question of adopting these measure for only one state. It is impossible to raise production costs within a territory not sheltered by trade walls.

And remember that there’s academic evidence showing that decentralization limits redistribution.

So the statists were smart to oppose welfare reform, since that meant decentralization and less wasteful and counterproductive spending.

Just as the statists are smart to push for a nationwide sales tax cartel. And just as the statists are wise to push for an end to international tax competition.

All of which means, of course, that the rest of us (at least those of us who value liberty) should follow the wisdom of Hayek and Mises.

P.S. Hayek even has groupies.

P.P.S. And Hayek even came back to life for Part I and Part II of the Hayek v Keynes rap videos.

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In early November of last year, I shared some remarkable data from a groundbreaking study published by the European Central Bank (ECB).

The study looking at public sector efficiency (PSE) in developed nations and found that “big governments spend a lot more and deliver considerably less.”

Later in the month, I wrote about a second ECB study that looked at a broader set of nations and further confirmed that smaller government produces better results.

The first ECB study clearly concluded that “small” government is more efficient and productive than either “medium” government or “big” government. Based on the second ECB study, we can conclude that it’s even better if government is…well, I guess we’ll have to use the term “smaller than small.”

Today, we can augment this research by looking at a new study from the International Monetary Fund.

The IMF’s new working paper on “Fiscal Decentralization and the Efficiency of Public Service Delivery” shows that it’s not only good to have small government, but that it’s also good to have decentralized government. Here are the main findings.

This paper analyzes the impacts of fiscal decentralization on the efficiency of public service delivery. …The paper’s findings suggest that fiscal decentralization can serve as a policy tool to improve performance… an adequate institutional environment is needed for decentralization to improve public service delivery. Such conditions include effective autonomy of local governments, strong accountability at various levels of institutions, good governance, and strong capacity at the local level. Moreover, a sufficient degree of expenditure decentralization seems necessary to obtain a positive outcome. And finally, decentralization of expenditure needs to be accompanied by sufficient decentralization of revenue to obtain favorable outcomes.

Here’s some explanation of why it’s better to have decisions made by sub-national governments.

Local governments possess better access to local preferences and, consequently, have an informational advantage over the central government in deciding which provision of goods and services would best satisfy citizens’ needs. …Local accountability is expected to put pressure on local authorities to continuously search for ways to produce and deliver better public service under limited resources, leading to “productive efficiency.” …Decentralization…encourages competition across local governments to improve public services; voters can use the performance of neighboring governments to make inferences about the competence or benevolence of their own local politicians… Fiscal decentralization may lead to a decrease in lobbying by interest groups.

I especially like the fact that the study recognized the valuable role of tax competition in limiting the greed of the political class.

The study also noted that genuine federalism leads to spending competition, though I get the impression that the authors seems to think this is a negative outcome.

Fiscal decentralization can also obstruct the redistribution role of the central government.

For what it’s worth (and based on previous academic research), I agree that decentralization makes it harder for government to be profligate.

But that’s a good thing. I want to “obstruct” economically destructive redistribution.

Now let’s look at the specific finding from the study.

…expenditure decentralization seems to improve the efficiency of public service delivery in advanced economies… To quantify this effect, one could say that a 5 percent increase in fiscal decentralization would lead to 2.9 percentage points of efficiency gains in public service delivery. …about one third of public expenditure would need to be shifted to the local authorities to obtain positive outcomes from fiscal decentralization.

Though it’s worth emphasizing that decentralization works when the sub-national levels of government are completely responsible for raising and spending their own money.

Revenue decentralization shows positive and statistically significant impacts on public service delivery for advanced economies and emerging economies and developing countries. …These findings might imply the need to accompany expenditure decentralization with sufficient revenue decentralization to ensure improvement of performance.

I’ve already argued that federalism is good politics and good policy.

Now we have evidence that it’s good government.

And who would have guessed that the normally statist IMF would be the bearer of this good news.

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To save the nation from a future Greek-style fiscal meltdown, we should reform entitlements.

But as part of the effort to restore limited, constitutional government, we also should shut down various departments that deal with issues that shouldn’t be handled by the central government.

I’ve already identified some low-hanging fruit.

Get rid of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Shut down the Department of Agriculture.

Eliminate the Department of Transportation.

We need to add the Department of Education to the list. And maybe even make it one of the first targets.

Increasing federal involvement and intervention, after all, is associated with more spending and more bureaucracy, but NOT better educational outcomes.

Politicians in Washington periodically try to “reform” the status quo, but rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic never works. And that’s true whether you look at the results of GOP plans, like Bush’s no-bureaucrat-left-behind scheme, or Democratic plans, like Obama’s Common Core.

The good news, as explained by the Washington Examiner, is that Congress is finally considering legislation that would reduce the federal government’s footprint.

There are some good things about this bill, which will serve as the reauthorization of former President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law. Importantly, the bill removes the Education Department’s ability to bludgeon states into adopting the controversial Common Core standards. The legislative language specifically forbids both direct and indirect attempts “to influence, incentivize, or coerce” states’ decisions. …The Student Success Act is therefore a step in the right direction, because it returns educational decisions to their rightful place — the state (or local) level. It is also positive in that it eliminates nearly 70 Department of Education programs, replacing them with more flexible grants to the states.

But the bad news is that the legislation doesn’t go nearly far enough. Federal involvement is a gaping wound caused by a compound fracture, while the so-called Student Success Act is a band-aid.

…as a vehicle for moving the federal government away from micromanaging schools that should fall entirely under state and local control, the bill is disappointing. …the recent explosion of federal spending and federal control in education over the last few decades has failed to produce any significant improvement in outcomes. Reading and math proficiency have hardly budged. …the federal government’s still-modest financial contribution to primary and secondary education has come with strings that give Washington an inordinate say over state education policy. …The Student Success Act…leaves federal spending on primary and secondary education at the elevated levels of the Bush era. It also fails to provide states with an opt-out.

To be sure, there’s no realistic way of making significant progress with Obama in the White House.

But the long-run battle will never be won unless reform-minded lawmakers make the principled case. Here’s the bottom line.

Education is one area where the federal government has long resisted accepting the evidence or heeding its constitutional limitations. …Republicans should be looking forward to a post-Obama opportunity to do it for real — to end federal experimentation and meddling in primary and secondary education and letting states set their own policies.


But now let’s acknowledge that ending federal involvement and intervention should be just the first step on a long journey.

State governments are capable of wasting money and getting poor results.

Local governments also have shown that they can be similarly profligate and ineffective.

Indeed, when you add together total federal/state/local spending and then look at the actual results (whether kids are getting educated), the United States does an embarrassingly bad job.

The ultimate answer is to end the government education monopoly and shift to a system based on choice and competition.

Fortunately, we already have strong evidence that such an approach yields superior outcomes.

To be sure, school choice doesn’t automatically mean every child will be an educational success, but evidence from SwedenChile, and the Netherlands shows good results after breaking up state-run education monopolies.

P.S. Let’s close with a bit of humor showing the evolution of math lessons in government schools.

P.P.S. If you want some unintentional humor, the New York Times thinks that government education spending has been reduced.

P.P.P.S. And you’ll also be amused (and outraged and disgusted) by the truly bizarre examples of political correctness in government schools.

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The modern welfare state is a disaster. But rather than go into lengthy details, let’s simply look at some very powerful images (click for enlarged view).

Probably the most damning evidence is that the poverty rate in America was steadily falling after World War II. But then Lyndon Johnson declared a “war on poverty” and got Washington more involved in the business of income redistribution. So what happened? The poverty rate stopped falling.

But it’s also sobering to see how much money is being spent on income-redistribution programs. Taxpayers at the federal, state, and local level are coughing up more than $1 trillion every year to subsidize poverty. To give an idea of how much inefficiency and waste permeates the system, this is enough to give every poor household $60,000.

Poor people are among the biggest victims of the welfare state. Redistribution programs create a dependency trap because of very high implicit tax rates on productive behavior. Simply stated, handouts are so generous that poor people who enter the labor force generally will have lower living standards than those who remain wards of the state.

 So what’s the solution to this mess?

Fortunately, we have a case study that points us in a productive direction.

The Bill Clinton-era welfare reforms, pushed through by Republicans in Congress, were a big success. Here are some excerpts from an article written by an expert at the Brooking Institution.

Between 1994 and 2004, the caseload declined about 60 percent, a decline that is without precedent. The percentage of U.S. children on welfare is now lower than it has been since at least 1970. …More than 40 studies conducted by states since 1996 show that about 60 percent of the adults leaving welfare are employed at any given moment and that, over a period of several months, about 80 percent hold at least one job. …Again, these sweeping changes are unprecedented. …Equally important, with earnings leading the way, the total income of these low-income families increased by more than 25 percent over the period (in constant dollars). Not surprisingly, between 1994 and 2000, child poverty fell every year and reached levels not seen since 1978. In addition, by 2000, the poverty rate of black children was the lowest it had ever been.

This is an older article from 2006, so there was obviously some movement in the wrong direction after the recent recession.

Nonetheless, the big message from welfare reform in the 1990s is that blank-check welfare entitlements are greatly inferior to a federalism-based approach that allows states to innovate and experiment to see what works best.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the Clinton welfare reforms only addressed a minor part of the welfare state. Moreover, the Obama Administration has undermined some of the modest progress that was achieved in the 1990s.

So we need a new offensive to deal with the broader deficiencies of the current system, which is a disaster for both taxpayers and poor people.

But if we use Clinton’s welfare reforms as a model, there is considerable progress that can be achieved. Diana Furchtgott-Roth of Economics 21 has a new study on precisely this topic.

She identifies some of the major redistribution programs in Washington.

This paper examines the evolution of major U.S. welfare programs since 1998—shortly after the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), the 1996 federal welfare reform signed into law by President Clinton, went into effect. The paper chronicles the average amount of aid provided, as well as length of time on public assistance, focusing on the following programs: SNAP; Temporary Aid to Needy Families, or TANF (established by PRWORA); Medicaid; and Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers (HCV).

And she points out these programs are an expensive failure, but proposes a way to address the problem.

…while the U.S. economy has since improved, participation in such programs has generally not declined. This paper concludes that there is ample scope for states to reform welfare, and it proposes two substantial changes: (1) cap welfare spending at the rate of inflation and the number of Americans in poverty; and (2) allow states to direct savings from welfare programs to other budget functions. …this paper finds that federal savings through 2013 would, after accounting for inflation and the number of Americans in poverty, total $1.3 trillion had welfare funding remained at 1998 levels.

The key is federalism.

States should have the freedom to experiment to see what policies are most effective. Under such conditions, successful states would serve as models for other states—and, possibly, models for further federal welfare reform. Indeed, successful welfare reforms have already been observed in North Carolina, New York, Indiana, and Rhode Island. …Providing states increased flexibility to adjust resource levels between welfare programs offers numerous advantages. For instance, states with low food prices but high housing costs might shift resources from SNAP to housing programs. In addition, states could divert funding from existing programs to new ones, such as community-based programs that prove successful.

Her bottom line is that the status quo is a failure.

Antipoverty programs should be judged by how successfully they help lift people out of poverty. By this measure, the country’s welfare programs performed poorly during the Great Recession and its aftermath: welfare costs and eligibility have, as this paper has documented, largely expanded, with few gains in poverty reduction. …The status quo is plainly unacceptable. New solutions, not more funding, are the answer. …empower states to choose welfare policies that best serve their most vulnerable families, as well as those that best fit their political demands.

An excellent study and a very sound proposal.

Though I would make one very important modification.

It’s clearly a step in the right direction if the federal government turns all income-redistribution programs into a block grant so that states can decide how to allocate the money and address poverty.

But the long-run goal should be to eliminate any role for Washington, even as a provider of block grants.

In an ideal world, the block grant should be immediately capped and then gradually phased out. Let state and local governments decide how to tax and spend in this arena.

P.S. Some folks on the right want to replace the current welfare state with a government-guaranteed minimum income. But that approach is very inferior to genuine federalism.

P.P.S. The bureaucrats at the OECD (subsidized by our tax dollars) are pushing a new definition of poverty that is really a stalking horse for more income redistribution.

P.P.P.S. In the spirit of political correctness, here’s the modern version of the Little Red Hen and the modern version of the fable about the ant and the grasshopper.

P.P.P.P.S. For American readers, click here to see the extent to which your state makes welfare more attractive than work.

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