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Archive for the ‘Poverty’ Category

Back in 2014, I shared a report that looked at the growth of redistribution spending in developed nations.

That bad news in the story was that the welfare state was expanding at a rapid pace in the United States. The good news is that the overall fiscal burden of those programs was still comparatively low. At least compared to other industrialized countries (though depressingly high by historical standards).

I specifically noted that Switzerland deserved a lot of praise because redistribution spending was not only relatively modest, but that it also was growing at a slow rate. Yet another sign it truly is the “sensible country.”

But I also expressed admiration for Canada.

Canada deserves honorable mention. It has the second-lowest overall burden of welfare spending, and it had the sixth-best performance in controlling spending since 2000. Welfare outlays in our northern neighbor grew by 10 percent since 2000, barely one-fourth as fast as the American increase during the reckless Bush-Obama years.

But I didn’t try to explain why Canada had good numbers.

Now it’s time to rectify that oversight. I went to the University of Texas-Arlington last week to give a speech and had the pleasure of meeting Professor Todd Gabel. Originally from Canada, Professor Gabel has written extensively on Canadian welfare policy and he gave me a basic explanation of what happened in his home country.

I asked him to share some of his academic research and he sent me several publications, including two academic studies he co-authored with Nathan Berg from the University of Otago.

Here are some excerpts from their 2015 study published in the Canadian Journal of Economics. Gabel and Berg explain welfare reform in Canada and look at which policies were most successful.

During the 1990s and 2000s, Canada’s social assistance (SA) system transitioned from a relatively centralized program with federal administrative controls to a decentralized mix of programs in which provinces had considerable discretion to undertake new policies. This transition led to substantially different SA programs across provinces and years… Some provincial governments experimented aggressively with new policy tools aimed at reducing SA participation. Others did not. In different years and by different amounts, nearly all provinces reduced SA benefit levels and tightened eligibility requirements.

By the way, the SA program in Canada is basically a more generous version of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program in America, in part because there are not separate programs for food and housing.

The study includes this remarkable chart showing a significant drop in Canadian welfare dependency, along with specific data for three provinces.

The authors wanted to know why welfare dependency declined in Canada. Was is simply a result of a better macroeconomic environment? Or did specific reforms in welfare policy play a role?

…what role, if any, did new reform strategies undertaken by provinces play in observed declines in SA participation. This paper attempts to address this question by measuring disaggregated effects of new reform strategies on provinces’ SA participation rates, while controlling for changes in benefit levels, eligibility requirements, labour market conditions, GDP growth and demographic composition.

Their conclusion is that welfare reform helped reduce dependency.

…our econometric models let the data decide on a ranking of which mechanisms—reductions in benefit levels, tightened eligibility requirements, improved macro-economic conditions or adoption of new reform strategies—had the largest statistical associations with declines in participation. The data suggest that new reforms were the second most important policy reform after reductions in employment insurance benefits. … In the empirical models that disaggregate the effects of different new reform strategies, it appears that work requirements with strong sanctions for non-compliance had the largest effects. The presence of strong work requirements is associated with a 27% reduction in SA participation.

Here’s their table showing the drop in various provinces between 1994 and 2009.

The same authors unveiled a new scholarly study published in 2017 in Applied Economics, which is based on individual-level data rather than province-level data.

Here are the key portions.

A heterogeneous mix of aggressive welfare reforms took effect in different provinces and years starting in the 1990s. Welfare participation rates subsequently declined. Previous investigations of these declines focused on cuts in benefits and stricter eligibility requirements. This article focuses instead on work requirements, diversion, earning exemptions and time limits – referred to jointly as new welfare reform strategies.

Here’s their breakdown of the types of reforms in the various provinces.

And here are the results of their statistical investigation.

The empirical models suggest that new reform strategies significantly reduced the probability of welfare participation by a minimum of 13% overall…the mean person in the sample faces a reduced risk of welfare participation of 1.1–1.3 percentage points when new reform strategies are present… the participation rates of the disabled, immigrants, aboriginals and single parents, appear to have responded to the presence of new reform strategies significantly more than the average Canadian in our sample. The expected rate of welfare participation for these groups fell by two to four times the mean rate of decline associated with new reform policies.

The bottom line is that welfare reform was very beneficial for Canada. Taxpayers benefited because the fiscal burden decreased. And poor people benefited because of a transition from dependency to work.

Let’s close by looking at data measuring redistribution spending in Canada compared to other developed nations. These OECD numbers include social insurance outlays as well as social welfare outlays, so this is a broad measure of redistribution spending, not just the money being spent on welfare. But it’s nonetheless worth noting the huge improvement in Canada’s numbers starting about 1994.

Canada now has the world’s 5th-freest economy. Welfare reform is just one piece of a very good policy puzzle. There also have been relatively sensible policies involving spending restraint, corporate tax reform, bank bailoutsregulatory budgeting, the tax treatment of saving, and privatization of air traffic control.

P.S. If it wasn’t so cold in Canada, that might be my escape option instead of Australia.

P.P.S. Given the mentality of the current Prime Minister, it’s unclear whether Canada will remain an economic success story.

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In prior years, I’ve shared some videos with powerful messages with a common message. Grinding poverty used to be the normal human condition, but then rule of law and limited government enabled a dramatic increase in prosperity.

All these videos are worth watching. They show that misery used to be pervasive but then we became rich starting a couple of hundred years ago.

But there’s one shortcoming in these videos. They basically tell a story of how the western world became rich. In other words, they describe how North American and Western Europe went from agricultural poverty to middle class prosperity.

What about the rest of the world?

Well, there’s a good story to tell there as well, albeit it’s happened more recently. Back in 2014, I shared some data from Economic Freedom of the world showing how there was a substantial increase in global economic liberty starting about 1980.

Yes, there were improvements in western nations during that period (thanks to Reagan, Thatcher, etc), but there were also improvements in economic freedom elsewhere (collapse of the Soviet Empire, reforms in what used to be known as the Third World, etc).

In this video from Prager University, Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute explains that this shift to free enterprise is what produced greater prosperity all across the world.

By the way, folks on the left (see this Salon article) don’t like the fact that the world shifted in the direction of economic liberty.

They grouse that the developing world was subjected to a “Washington consensus” that imposed a “neoliberal” agenda (with neoliberal meaning “classical liberal“).

But here’s a visual showing how a shift to capitalism was great news for the less fortunate. The number of people in extreme poverty has dropped dramatically since the early 1990s.

I wish the data went back to 1980, but even these partial numbers are a tremendous confirmation of the hypothesis that free markets are the best way of helping the poor.

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I periodically share data showing that living standards are higher in the United States than in Europe.

My goal isn’t to be jingoistic. Instead, I’m warning readers that we won’t be as prosperous if we copy out tax-and-spend friends on the other side of the Atlantic (just like I try to draw certain conclusions when showing how many low-tax jurisdictions have higher levels of economic output than the United States).

I’m sometimes asked, though, how America can be doing better than Europe when we have more poverty.

And when I ask them why they thinks that’s the case, they will point to sources such as this study from the German-based Institute of Labor Economics. Here’s some attention-grabbing data from the report.

The United States has the highest poverty rate both overall and among households with an employed person, but it stands farther away from the other countries on its in-work poverty rate than its overall poverty rate. The contrast between the US and three other English-speaking countries — Australia, Ireland, and the United Kingdom — is particularly striking. Compared to those three nations, the United States has an overall poverty rate only a little higher but an in-work poverty rate that is much higher.

And here’s the main chart from the study, with the United States as the bottom. It appears that there twice as much poverty in the USA as there is in a stagnant economy like France.

There even appears to be more poverty in America than there is in Spain and Italy, both of which are so economically shaky that they required bailouts during the recent fiscal/financial crisis.

Sounds horrible, right?

Yes, it does sound really bad. However, it’s total nonsense. Because what you read in the excerpt and see in the graph has nothing to do with poverty.

Instead, it’s a measure of income distribution.

And, if you read carefully, the study actually admits there’s a bait-and-switch.

The…approach to measuring poverty is a “relative” one, with the poverty line set at 60 or 50 percent of the median income.

Think about what this means. A country where everyone is impoverished will have zero or close-to-zero poverty because everyone is at the median income. But as I’ve explained before, a very wealthy society can have lots of “poverty” if some people are a lot richer than others.

And since the United States is much richer than other nations, this means an American household with $35,000 of income can be poor, even though they wouldn’t count as poor if they earned that much elsewhere.

This is like grading on a rigged curve. And if you read the fine print of the IZA study, you’ll see that the “poverty” threshold for a four-person household magically jumps by $16,260.

For a household of four (two adults, two children) the difference between the official US threshold and the 60-percent-of-median threshold amounts to more than $16,000 ($24,000 versus $40,260). This means that the size of the working poor population in America according to the official poverty measure is significantly lower than the size obtained in studies using a relative threshold.

In other words, you can calculate a much higher poverty rate if you include people who aren’t poor.

By the way, since the IZA report acknowledges this bait-and-switch approach, I guess one would have to say that the study technically is honest.

But it’s still misleading because most people aren’t going to read the fine print. Instead, they’ll see the main chart showing higher “poverty” and assume that there is a much higher percentage of actual poor people in the United States.

Moreover, some people may understand that there’s a bait-and-switch and simply want to help fool additional people.

And I’m guessing that this is exactly what the authors and the IZA staff expected and wanted. And if that’s the case, then the study is deliberately misleading, even if not technically dishonest.

I’ll close by stating that I don’t mind if folks on the left want to argue that market-based societies are somehow unfair because some people are richer than others. And it’s also fine for them to argue that we should be willing sacrifice some of our national prosperity to achieve more after-the-fact equality of income.

But I’d like for them to be upfront about their agenda and not hide behind dodgy data manipulation.

P.S.When you do apples-to-apples comparisons of the United States with the best-performing economies of Europe, you find that the poor tend to be at the same level, but every other group is better off in America.

P.P.S. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that both the Obama Administration and the leftists at the OECD prefer the “relative” definition of poverty.

P.P.P.S. The problem with our statist friends, as Margaret Thatcher explained, is that some of them are so upset about inequality that they’re willing to make everyone poorer if that’s what it takes to reduce income differences.

P.P.P.P.S. Indeed, this “Swiftian” column about reducing inequality is satire, but one wonders whether statists would actually accept such an outcome.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Data from China demonstrates why our attention should be on poverty reduction rather than inequality.

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I’ve written (many, many times) about how the best way to help the poor is to focus on economic growth rather than inequality.

After all, in a genuine market economy (as opposed to socialism, cronyism, or some other form of statism), the poor aren’t poor because some people are rich.

Today, let’s look at a real-world example of why it is a mistake to focus on inequality.

A study by five Chinese scholars looked at income inequality over time in their country. Their research, published in 2010, focused mostly on the methodological challenges of obtaining good long-run data and understanding the impact of urban and rural populations. But one clear conclusion is that inequality has increased in China.

This paper investigates the influences of the income overlap part on the nationwide Gini coefficient. Then we present a new approach to estimating the Chinese Gini ratio from 1978 to 2006, which avoids the shortcomings of current data sources. In line with the results, the authors further probe the trend of Chinese income disparity. …income inequality has been rising in China. …the national Gini ratio of 2006 is 1.52 times more than that of 1978.

Here’s a chart based on their data (combined with post-2006 data from Statista). It looks at historical trends for the Gini coefficient (a value of “1” is absolute inequality, with one person accumulating all the income in a society, whereas a value of “0” is absolute equality, with everyone having the same level of income.

As you can see, there’s been a significant increase in inequality.

My leftist friends are conditioned to think this is a terrible outcome, in large part because they incorrectly think the economy is a fixed pie.

And when you have that distorted view, higher absolute incomes for the rich necessarily imply lower absolute incomes for the poor.

My response (beyond pointing out that the economy is not a fixed pie), is to argue that the goal should be economic growth and poverty reduction. I don’t care if Bill Gates is getting richer at a faster rate than a poor person. I just want a society where everyone has the chance to climb the economic ladder.

And I also point out that it’s hard to design pro-growth policies that won’t produce more income for rich people. Yes, there are some reforms (licensing liberalization, cutting agriculture subsidies, reducing protectionism, shutting the Ex-Im Bank, reforming Social Security, ending bailouts) that will probably be disproportionately beneficial for those with low incomes, but those policies also will produce growth that will help upper-income people.*

But I’m digressing. The main goal of today’s column is to look at the inequality data from above and then add the following data on poverty reduction.

Here’s a chart I shared back in March. As you can see, there’s been a very impressive reduction in the number of people suffering severe deprivation in rural China (where incomes historically have been lowest).

Consider, now, both charts together.

The bottom line is that economic liberalization resulted in much faster growth. And because some people got richer at a faster rate than others got richer, that led to both an increase in inequality and a dramatic reduction in poverty.

Therefore, what happened in China creates a type of Rorschach test for folks on the left.

  • A well-meaning leftist will look at all this data and say, “I wish somehow everyone got richer at the same rate, but market-based reforms in China are wonderful because so many people escaped poverty.”
  • A spiteful leftist will look at all this data and say, “Because upper-income people benefited even more than low-income people, market-based reforms in China were a failure and should be reversed.”

Needless to say, the spiteful leftists are the ones who hate the rich more than they love the poor (here are some wise words from Margaret Thatcher on such people).

*To the extend that some upper-income taxpayers obtain unearned income via government intervention, then they may lose out from economic liberalization. Ethical rich people, however, will earn more income if there are pro-growth reforms.

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For almost all of human history, the norm for 99 percent of the population was poverty and deprivation.

Then, starting a few hundred years ago, something amazing happened. There was a sudden explosion of prosperity. In past years, I’ve shared two videos explaining this remarkable phenomenon, which is linked to the unleashing of free markets, the rule of law, and property rights.

Now let’s look at some similar data, but for a different purpose. Here are some fascinating charts put together by Professor Max Roser of Oxford. As you can see at the top, almost everybody used to be poor. But as you look below, you’ll notice that an increasing share of the world’s population is middle class or above.

There are three takeaways from this data.

The first conclusion, as noted above, is that the world is getting richer. Hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. That’s wonderful news.

The second conclusion, as seen by the red section of the chart, is that a modest bit of reform in India and China has paid big dividends (and, given the success of Indian-Americans and Chinese-Americans, I imagine those nations could become much richer with additional market-friendly reform).

But I want to focus today on a third conclusion, which is that pro-growth policies are the best way to help the poor, not redistribution driven by a fixation on inequality.

More specifically, notice how there was a lot of inequality in the chart for 1975, particularly compared to the chart for 1800. My leftist friends, with their flawed belief that the economy is a fixed pie, would instinctively assume that Europe and the Americas somehow became comparatively rich because Asia and Africa stayed comparatively poor.

In reality, the real story is that the economies of the western world expanded because they found the recipe for growth and prosperity.

And the 2015 chart shows that the rest of the world is finally moving in that direction as well (as confirmed by long-run data from Economic Freedom of the world).

What would have happened, however, if our friends on the left had control of global policy in 1975 and imposed high tax rates in order to redistribute lots of income from rich nations to poor nations? In other words, what would have happened if they imposed on the world the policies that they try to impose in various nations?

If that had happened, the world economy would have underperformed. As Thomas Sowell has explained, such policies penalize productive behavior and subsidize unproductive behavior.

It’s possible that such policies would have reduced inequality, to be sure, but global income would have been far lower.

Fortunately, we avoided that outcome and instead enjoyed a reduction in inequality caused by better policy and growth-driven convergence.

Which is exactly the lesson for helping the less fortunate in individual nations.

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As I peruse the news, I periodically see headlines that are misleading in some fashion.

And if the headline is sufficiently off-key or bizarre, I feel compelled to grouse.

Now I have a new example, though I’m not sure whether to call it dishonest or clueless.

The EU Observer has a brief report that poverty has reached record levels in Germany.

Despite a booming economy, 12.9 million people in Germany were living below the poverty line in 2015, the Equal Welfare Association reported on Thursday. Based on figures from the Federal Statistical Office the alliance found a record high poverty rate of 15.7 percent in 2015.

By the way, I can’t resist pointing out that there is no “booming economy” in Germany. Growth in 2016 was only 1.9 percent.

Yes, that’s decent by European standards of stagnation and decline, but it’s far from impressive in any other context.

But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to the main point of today’s column.

As you can see from the story’s headline, the implication is that lots of people are left behind and mired in deprivation even though the economy is moving forward.

But there’s a problem with both the story and the headline.

If you read carefully, it turns out that both the story (and the study that triggered the story) have nothing to do with poverty.

No link at all. None. Zero. Nada. Zilch.

I’m not joking. There’s no estimate of the number of people below some measure of a German poverty line. There’s no calculation of any sort about living standards. Instead, this story (and the underlying report) are about the distribution of income.

…people [are] defined as poor when living on an income less than 60 percent of that of the median German household.

One might be tempted at this point to dismiss this as a bit of journalistic sloppiness. Indeed, one might even conclude that this is a story about nothing.

After all, noting that some people are below 60 percent of the median income level is about as newsworthy as a report saying that half of people are above average and half are below average.

But there actually is a story here. Though it’s not about poverty. Instead, it’s about an ongoing statist campaign to redefine poverty to mean unequal distribution of income.

I’m not joking. For instance, the bureaucrats at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development actually put out a study claiming that there was more poverty in the United States than in nations such as Greece, Portugal, and Turkey.

How could they make such a preposterous claim? Easy, the OECD bureaucrats didn’t measure poverty. Instead, they concocted a measure of the degree to which various countries are close to the left-wing dream of equal incomes.

And the Obama Administration also tried to manipulate poverty statistics in the United States in hopes of pushing this statist agenda of coerced equality.

Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation wrote about what Obama tried to do.

…the Obama administration…measure, which has little or nothing to do with actual poverty, will serve as the propaganda tool in Obama’s endless quest to “spread the wealth.” …The current poverty measure counts absolute purchasing power — how much steak and potatoes you can buy. The new measure will count comparative purchasing power — how much steak and potatoes you can buy relative to other people. …In other words, Obama will employ a statistical trick to ensure that “the poor will always be with you,” no matter how much better off they get in absolute terms. …The weird new poverty measure will produce very odd results. For example, if the real income of every single American were to magically triple over night, the new poverty measure would show there had been no drop in “poverty,” because the poverty income threshold would also triple. …Another paradox of the new poverty measure is that countries such as Bangladesh and Albania will have lower poverty rates than the United States, even though the actual living conditions in those countries are extremely bad.

Even moderates such as Robert Samuelson recognized that Obama’s agenda was absurd. Here is some of what he wrote.

…the new definition has strange consequences. Suppose that all Americans doubled their incomes tomorrow, and suppose that their spending on food, clothing, housing and utilities also doubled. That would seem to signify less poverty — but not by the new poverty measure. It wouldn’t decline, because the poverty threshold would go up as spending went up. Many Americans would find this weird: People get richer but “poverty” stays stuck.

To put this all in context, the left isn’t merely motivated by a desire to exaggerate and misstate poverty. That simply the means to an end.

What they want is more redistribution and higher tax rates. The OECD openly admitted that was the goal in another report. Much as all the fixation about inequality in America is simply a tool to advocate bigger government.

P.S. Germany is an example of a rational welfare state. While the public sector is far too large, the country has enjoyed occasional periods of genuine spending restraint and German politicians wisely avoided a Keynesian spending binge during the last recession.

P.P.S. Though Germany also has its share of crazy government activity, including a big green-energy boondoggle. And lots of goofy actions, such as ticketing a one-armed man for have a bicycle with only one handlebar brake, taxing homeowners today for a street that was built beginning in the 1930s, making streetwalkers pay a tax by using parking meters, and spending 30 times as much to enforce a tax as is collected.

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If there was an award for the most dramatic political development of 2016, it would presumably be the election of Donald Trump.

If there was an award for the best policy reform of 2016, my vote would be the constitutional spending cap in Brazil.

If there was an award for the greatest outburst of sensibility in 2016, it would be the landslide vote in Switzerland against a government-guaranteed income.

But what about an award for the most compelling article of 2016? Well, we still have a few days left in the year, so it’s theoretically possible that I’ll change my mind, but as of today the award would go to my friend Deirdre McCloskey for her December 23 column in the New York Times.

She addresses the fundamental issue of whether policy should be designed to reduce poverty or increase equality. Here’s some of what she wrote.

Eliminating poverty is obviously good. And, happily, it is already happening on a global scale. …We need to finish the job. But will we really help the poor by focusing on inequality? …The Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt put it this way: “Economic equality is not, as such, of particular moral importance.” Instead we should lift up the poor… Another eminent philosopher, John Rawls of Harvard, articulated what he called the Difference Principle: If the entrepreneurship of a rich person made the poorest better off, then the higher income of the entrepreneur was justified.

But Deirdre doesn’t limit herself to philosophical arguments.

She looks at the practical issues, such as whether governments have the ability (or motives!) to correctly re-slice the economic pie.

A practical objection to focusing on economic equality is that we cannot actually achieve it, not in a big society, not in a just and sensible way. …Cutting down the tall poppies uses violence for the cut. And you need to know exactly which poppies to cut. Trusting a government of self-interested people to know how to redistribute ethically is naïve. Another problem is that the cutting reduces the size of the crop. We need to allow for rewards that tell the economy to increase the activity earning them. …An all-wise central plan could force the right people into the right jobs. But such a solution, like much of the case for a compelled equality, is violent and magical. The magic has been tried, in Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China. So has the violence.

Deirdre notes that people sometimes are drawn to socialism, in part because of how we interact with family and friends.

But you can’t extrapolate those experiences to broader society.

Many of us share socialism in sentiment, if only because we grew up in loving families with Mom as the central planner. Sharing works just fine in a loving household. But it is not how grown-ups get stuff.

When redistributionist principles are imposed on broader society, bad things happen.

As a matter of arithmetic, expropriating the rich to give to the poor does not uplift the poor very much. …And redistribution works only once. You can’t expect the expropriated rich to show up for a second cutting. In a free society, they can move to Ireland or the Cayman Islands. And the wretched millionaires can hardly re-earn their millions next year if the state has taken most of the money.

In other words, you get a shrinking pie rather than a growing pie. As Tom Sowell also has observed, people don’t produce as much when the government seizes the fruits of their labor.

And in that kind of world, it’s theoretically possible that poor people will have a greater share, but they still wind up a smaller amount (moreover, in practice the government elite wind up with all the wealth).

So what’s the bottom line?

Deirdre cites South Korea as an example of a nation where poor people now enjoy much better lives thanks to growth, and she then asks readers the key question: Will the poor benefit more from the classical liberal principles of rule of law and free markets, or will they benefit more from coercive redistribution?

Her explanation is magnificent.

It is growth from exchange-tested betterment, not compelled or voluntary charity, that solves the problem of poverty. …Which do we want, a small one-time (though envy-and-anger-satisfying) extraction from the rich, or a free society of betterment, one that lifts up the poor by gigantic amounts? We had better focus directly on the equality that we actually want and can achieve, which is equality of social dignity and equality before the law. Liberal equality, as against the socialist equality of enforced redistribution, eliminates the worst of poverty. …To borrow from the heroes of my youth, Marx and Engels: Working people of all countries unite! You have nothing to lose but stagnation! Demand exchange-tested betterment in a liberal society. Some dare call it capitalism.

Glorious!

I’ve also addressed this issue, on multiple occasions, and I think the resolution of this growth-vs-redistribution debate may very well determine the future of our nation. So I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say Deirdre’s column is the most important article of 2016.

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