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Archive for the ‘Welfare’ Category

Building on the success of state-level reforms in KansasMaine, Wisconsin, Alabama, and Georgia, the Trump Administration has proposed to tighten rules that impose work requirements on childless and able-bodied adults who receive food stamps.

Since I want to get Washington out of the business of redistribution, this is not the ideal solution.

But are work requirements better than the status quo?

Here’s some of what National Review wrote about the proposal.

Our food-stamp program has some bizarre loopholes… In theory, the program has a strict time limit for “ABAWDs,” or able-bodied adults without dependents… But in practice, the executive branch has broad discretion to waive the limit for large geographic areas with weak labor markets — and previous administrations used that discretion promiscuously. As of 2017, about a third of the U.S. population lived in waived areas. …Under the new rule, effective in April of next year, these waivers won’t be granted to areas with unemployment below 6 percent. And states will be far more limited in the geographical configurations they can request waivers for. …Many on the left complain about the rule simply because it will reduce the number of people on food stamps — by about 700,000, roughly 2 percent of total food-stamp enrollment… But…there is clearly room for cuts. (Despite the recovery, total enrollment is about double what it was in 2000.) …The 1996 welfare reform proved the effectiveness of this approach.

As you might expect, this proposal is causing angst for some lawmakers.

Congresswoman Marcia Fudge condemned the proposal in a column for the Washington Post.

…taking food from the tables of hungry Americans during the holidays…that’s the latest act of cartoonish villainy by the Trump administration. …the Agriculture Department played the part of the Grinch, finalizing a rule to cut billions of dollars from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. The rule will remove nearly 700,000 from the program…, representing a callous escalation of the Trump administration’s war on people in need. …both red and blue states want the flexibility this rule will eliminate. The rule will dramatically reduce the flexibility of states to decide how best to serve the needs of their own citizens.

My view on food stamps (as well as other redistribution programs) is that Washington should have no role.

So if Congresswoman Fudge wants her state to give goodies to able-bodied adults with no children, that would be a decision for Ohio’s politicians (or, even more relevantly, Oregon’s politicians).

I’m fine with that type of flexibility, but there’s a catch that Ms. Fudge doesn’t mention. She wants taxpayers from across the country to subsidize that decision.

That’s not the way it should work. I’m all in favor of “the flexibility of states,” but that principle should apply to both raising money and spending money.

By the way, work requirements are not just an issue for the food stamp program.

There are also discussions about whether people getting Medicaid should have an obligation to work.

Writing for the Federalist, John Daniel Davidson applauds an initiative from the White House to move in that direction.

The Trump administration…will allow states to impose work requirements on abled-bodied adults to qualify for Medicaid. …it’s about time. …imposing work requirements on able-bodied adults will…help enrollees far more than Medicaid coverage will, mostly by giving them a strong incentive to secure full employment. …By putting millions of able-bodied adults on the Medicaid rolls, Obamacare created perverse incentive for those enrollees to limit their income so they could keep their Medicaid coverage. …Work requirements are a proven way to unwind perverse incentives and improve people’s lives. …progressives consider work requirements insulting and demeaning.

It was also a major focus of the very successful 1996 welfare reform legislation.

In an article for City Journal, Kay Hymowitz points out that law is still yielding big dividends.

…the Census Bureau released its report on the nation’s income, poverty, and health-insurance coverage for 2018. …poverty in single-mother households sank to its lowest rate . . . ever. What’s more, the decline took place entirely among black and Hispanic single-mother families. …this is a “Wow!” moment. …More black and Hispanic women have jobs and are working more hours. “The rise in full-time, year-round work led to an increase in incomes and earnings at the household level,” the Census Bureau found. Better yet, the growing number of hours worked by single mothers led to a decline in child poverty of 2.5 percentage points. …the 1996 welfare-reform law…overturned Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which had entitled poor single mothers to cash benefits. As a result, unemployment among the growing number of single mothers was high. Essentially, welfare reform said no more free lunch, instituting work requirements and replacing open-ended AFDC with a time-limited grant to poor mothers (TANF, or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families). …full-time, year-round work can reduce poverty and…poor minority women can improve their lives and the lives of their children through nine-to-five labor. Any “welfare-reform-is-a-failure” narrative should collapse under the weight of such demonstrated facts.

And it’s worth pointing out that one of America’s major redistribution programs – the EITC – is entirely based on work.

Recipients only get a handout if they also earn some money.

Regarding the desirability of work requirements, we can learn from what’s happened in other countries.

In an article from last year, Ryan Streeter of the American Enterprise Institute found good news from work-oriented reforms, especially in Nordic nations.

A majority of Americans, including 55 percent of people living in poverty, believe the purpose of welfare is to help people get on their feet, not just to dispense benefits. Eight in 10 low-income respondents believe working should be required to receive welfare benefits. …Welfare reformers might draw some lessons from unlikely places…the Scandinavian welfare systems are arguably more pro-work than ours… For instance, to deal with declining labor force participation, Denmark eliminated permanent disability benefits for people under 40 and refashioned its system to make employment central. Sweden reformed its welfare system to focus on rapid transitions from unemployment to work. Their program lowers jobless assistance the longer one is on welfare. …Similarly, the British government combined six welfare programs with varying requirements into a single “universal credit.” …An evaluation of the new program, which encourages work, found that 86 percent of claimants were trying to increase their work hours and 77 percent were trying to earn more, compared to 38 percent and 55 percent, respectively, under the previous system.

Regarding the reforms in the United Kingdom, here are some excerpts from a report by Emily Top for E21.

The UK overhauled its welfare system with the Welfare Reform Act 2012. …In addition to simplifying the programs into one, the Act required claimants to agree to a “Claimant Commitment,” in which they sought the services of a work coach to improve their job prospects and get hired. …the program has led to an increase in UK labor force participation as well as a decrease in dependence on benefits. During the same period that the labor force participation rate in the U.S. declined from 84 percent to 82 percent for prime age workers, the rate in the UK increased from 84 percent to 86 percent.

Let’s close by looking at some academic research on work requirements in the United States.

Three professors studied the impact of Bill Clinton’s welfare reform on recipients and found significant societal benefits.

The US Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996, often referred to as ‘welfare reform’, was a major policy shift in the US that sought to dramatically reduce dependence of single parents on government benefits by promoting work… The key strategy for reducing dependence was to promote employment by imposing work requirements as a condition for receiving benefits in concert with a lifetime limit on receipt of cash assistance. …The reforms have been successful in that welfare caseloads have declined dramatically – 78% since their peak in 1994. …In a series of recent papers, we investigated the effects of welfare reform in the US – which is still in effect today – on women’s illicit drug use and other types of crime… We found robust evidence that welfare reform led to a 10%–21% decline in illicit drug use among women at risk of relying on welfare, as well as associated declines in drug-related arrests (6%–7%), drug-related hospital emergency department episodes (7%–11%), and possibly drug-related prison admissions (11%–19%). These findings provide some support of the ‘mainstreaming’ argument underlying welfare reform. …We found that welfare reform led to decreases in female arrests for property crime – which is the type of crime women are most likely to commit (Campagniello 2014) – by 4–5%… The findings from this study point to broad-based work incentives – and, by inference, employment – as an important determinant of female property crime…

These are all good outcomes.

Though the best news – both for taxpayers and poor people – is contained in this chart from their research.

P.S. While the Trump proposal is not my ideal policy, it does compare well with the Obama Administration’s efforts to expand food stamp dependency – including bribes for states that signed up additional recipients.

P.P.S. With all redistribution programs, there is an ever-present challenge – highlighted by Thomas Sowell – of how to avoid trapping people in dependency with high implicit marginal tax rates.

P.P.P.S. There’s also a moral issue of whether people should feel ashamed for taking government handouts.

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When non-libertarian audiences ask my opinion about immigration, I generally point out that it is a very good sign that so many people want to come to the United States.

Almost everyone agrees with that statement, but that doesn’t put them in the pro-immigration camp. Instead, I find that many people have a “what’s in it for us” attitude.

  1. They like the underlying concept of programs such as the EB-5 visa that attract immigrants with money, and they are broadly sympathetic to immigrants with skills and education. At the risk of over-simplifying, they want immigrants who won’t rely on handouts and they like immigrants who presumably will increase the nation’s per-capita GDP (and there certainly is strong evidence that this happens).
  2. They’re skeptical of mass immigration by people with low incomes. This is mostly because they fear such migrants will impose higher costs on taxpayers, though Republican types also seem motivated by concerns about future voting patterns. The notable exception to this pattern is that business audiences are somewhat sympathetic to mass migration because they believe labor costs will fall.

When I deal with people in category #2, I sometimes ask them about Tyler Cowen’s idea of allowing limitless migration from nations with bigger welfare states. After all, I doubt people such as “Lazy Robert” will move from Denmark to the United States.

But what about poor people from poor nations? Would they like to migrate to rich nations to get handouts, rather than for economic opportunity?

Taxpayers in many nations are worried about that possibility and are not very welcoming to immigrants who will collect benefits.

Indeed, that’s motivated the Trump Administration to consider tightening rules for who gets in the country.

The Trump administration announced long-awaited “public charge” immigration regulations this week, and the furor immediately kicked up to derangement level. …But immigration regulation of this sort has been a part of our laws for more than a century…the 1882 act declared that “any convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge…shall not be permitted to land.” …The 1952 revisions to immigration law maintained the idea that the government may exclude “paupers, professional beggars, or vagrants” and those who are “are likely at any time to become public charges.” …In 1996, Congress strengthened the public charge provisions…why would anyone call the Trump administration’s interpretation “un-American?” …the regulations—which do not apply to refugees, asylum-seekers, and various other groups—propose guidance to determine if an immigrant would be likely to use the welfare system for more than 12 months during a three-year period.

But it’s not just a controversy in the United States.

Taxpayers in the Netherlands, for instance, are becoming less tolerant of immigrants who want handouts rather than work.

Non-Western immigrants and their descendants also depend on welfare to a much greater extent than the native Dutch. They are half of all welfare recipients but only 11% of the total population. Among recent Somali refugees granted asylum, 80% are on welfare. Holland is truly a welfare state, and the Dutch are proud of it. …This type of open and yet highly regulated society can function only if it is carried by a disciplined and well-educated citizenry… That is what the fuss is about. To put it in abstract terms: Can a welfare state become an immigration state? You know the answer: A welfare state with open borders will one day run out of money.

I can’t imagine that stories like this make German taxpayers happy.

As early as 2016, German newspapers have been reporting on migrants with recognized refugee status having holidays in countries that they “fled,” such as Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Syria. Because Hartz IV, the welfare system that certain migrants granted refugee status receive, permits 21 days per year of “local absence,” those who have recognized refugee status and have no income or assets simply leave Germany for vacation and continue to receive money from German taxpayers.

There are also concerns that welfare spending hinders economic integration and independence in Sweden.

…only 20 percent of the Somali immigrants in Sweden have jobs, according to a report released on Monday by the government’s Commission… In an opinion article published in the Expressen newspaper, the author of the report, Benny Carlsson of Lund University, explained that Sweden would be well served to let community-based organizations do more…rather than relying on public agencies… Carlsson explained that…Sweden’s rigid labour market and labour protection laws also create “higher risks” for employees which amount to “higher thresholds” for Somali jobseekers. …Carlsson also cited Sweden’s social safety net which “lets people live at a decent level even if they don’t work, while the same can’t be said of the United States”.

Speaking of Sweden, stories of welfare dependency help to explain this report in the New York Times.

…four years after the influx, growing numbers of native-born Swedes have come to see the refugees as a drain on public finances. …Antipathy for immigrants now threatens to erode support for Sweden’s social welfare state. “People don’t want to pay taxes to support people who don’t work,” says Urban Pettersson, 62, a member of the local council here in Filipstad, a town set in lake country west of Stockholm. “Ninety percent of the refugees don’t contribute to society. These people are going to have a lifelong dependence on social welfare. This is a huge problem.” …Under the Nordic model, governments typically furnish health care, education and pensions to everyone. The state delivers subsidized housing and child care. When people lose jobs, they gain unemployment benefits… But the endurance of the Nordic model has long depended on two crucial elements — the public’s willingness to pay some of the highest taxes on earth, and the understanding that everyone is supposed to work. …Sweden’s sharp influx of immigrants — the largest of any European nation, as a share of the overall population — directly tests this proposition. …The unemployment rate was only 3.8 percent among the Swedish-born populace last year, but 15 percent among foreign-born… Roughly half of all jobless people in Sweden were foreign-born. …these sorts of numbers are cited as evidence that refugees have flocked here to enjoy lives of state-financed sloth. …The average refugee in Sweden receives about 74,000 Swedish kronor (about $7,800) more in government services than they pay into the system, Joakim Ruist, an economist at the University of Gothenburg, concluded in a report released last year and commissioned by the Ministry of Finance. Over all, the cost of social programs for refugees runs about 1 percent of Sweden’s annual national economic output

But is it true that migrants are looking for handouts? Are the afore-cited stories just random anecdotes, or do they suggest some countries are “welfare magnets”?

I’ve already shared some evidence that welfare recipients inside the United States gravitate to places that provide bigger benefits.

And this seems to be the case for migrants that cross national borders. Here are some findings from some new academic research showing that the generosity of Denmark’s welfare state has a significant impact on migration choices.

We study the effects of welfare generosity on international migration using a series of large changes in welfare benefits for immigrants in Denmark. The first change, implemented in 2002,lowered benefits for immigrants from outside the EU by about 50%, with no changes for natives or immigrants from inside the EU. The policy was later repealed and re-introduced. The differential treatment of immigrants from inside and outside the EU, and of different types of non-EU immigrants, allows for a quasi-experimental research design. We find sizeable effects:the benefit reduction reduced the net flow of immigrants by about 5,000 people per year, or 3.7percent of the stock of treated immigrants, and the subsequent repeal of the policy reversed the effect almost exactly. Our study provides some of the first causal evidence on the widely debated “welfare magnet” hypothesis. …our evidence implies that, conditional on moving, the generosity of the welfare system is important for destination choices.

Here’s the relevant graph from the study, based on two different ways of slicing the data.

As you can see from the red lines, migration fell when benefits were reduced, then immediately jumped when benefits were increased, and then immediately fell again when they were again lowered.

For what it’s worth, scholars believe that support for the welfare state in Europe is declining for these reasons. Taxpayers are tolerant of subsidizing their long-time neighbors, but are much less sympathetic when giving away money to newcomers.

From my perspective, the solution is obvious. I generally like immigration and generally don’t like redistribution.

So why not reduce benefits, ideally for everyone, but just to migrants if that’s the only possible outcome. That way nations are more likely to attract people (especially from low-income societies) who are seeking economic opportunity.

P.S. If you want to enjoy some immigration-related humor, we have a video about Americans migrating to Peru and a story about American leftists escaping to Canada.

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When I think about social welfare spending, I mostly worry about recipients getting trapped in dependency.

But I also feel sorry for taxpayers, who are bearing ever-higher costs to finance redistribution programs.

Today’s column won’t focus on those issues. Instead, we’re going to utilize new OECD data to compare the size of the welfare states in developed nations.

We’ll start with the big picture. Here it total redistribution spending, measured as a share of economic output, for selected countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Nobody will be surprised, I assume, to see that France, Finland, Belgium, Denmark, and Italy have the biggest welfare states.

The United States is in the middle of the pack. American taxpayers might be surprised to learn, though, that they finance a bigger welfare state than the ones that exist in Canada, Iceland, and the Netherlands.

The overall numbers are important, but it’s also educational to consider the various components.

And the largest chunk of social spending in most nations is for their old-age programs. The biggest burdens are found in Greece, Italy, France, Portugal, and Austria. The United States, once again, is in the middle of the pack.

By the way, keep in mind that there are many factors that determine why some nations spend more than others.

  • How generous are benefits? – This is often measured as the “replacement rate,” which compares retirement benefits to income during working years.
  • When can people retire? – Some countries allow people, or some classes of people, to get benefits while relatively young. Others are more stringent.
  • Does a country have an aging population? – Demographic changes already are beginning to have a large effect on the finances of some systems.
  • Is there a private savings system? – Nations such as Switzerland, Australia, Chile, and the Netherlands have significant private retirement savings.

Now let’s look at government spending on health.

Here’s the area where the United States is more extravagant than almost every other nation. Only France spends more money.

Actually, since per-capita GDP is significantly larger in the United States than in France, American taxpayers spend more on a per-person basis.

Some people will observe, with great justification, that the data for the United States may be a measure of the inefficiency of the American system rather than taxpayer generosity. This is a topic for another day.

Last but not least, let’s look at traditional welfare. In other words, cash assistance to the working-age population.

The fiscal burden of this spending is highest in Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, and Luxembourg. The United States, meanwhile, is comparatively frugal.

P.S. Here are a couple of caveats for number crunchers and policy wonks.

First, there are methodological challenges when comparing OECD nations. Eastern European nations tend to be significantly less prosperous than Western European nations, thanks to decades of communist enslavement. So looking at this data does not really allow for apples-to-apples comparisons. Moreover, there are a handful of developing nations that belong to the OECD, such as Mexico and Turkey, so comparison are effectively meaningless. And Chile is on the cusp of becoming a fully developed nation so it’s in its own category.

Second, as I briefly mentioned above, nations have different levels of per-capita GDP. If we look at the last chart, Austria and Spain spend a similar share of GDP on welfare, but since Austria is a richer nation, its taxpayers actually finance a lot more per-capita welfare spending. The same is true if you compare Canada and Estonia, Sweden and Slovenia, and Germany and Greece.

P.P.S. There was virtually no welfare state in OECD nations prior to the 1930s and very small welfare states until the 1960s. For what it’s worth, the huge reduction in poverty in those nations occurred before the welfare state.

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One of the more elementary observations about economics is that a nation’s prosperity is determined in part by the quantity of quality of labor and capital. These “factors of production” are combined to generate national income.

I frequently grouse that punitive tax policies discourage capital. There’s less incentive to invest, after all, if the government imposes extra layers of tax on income that is saved and invested.

Bad tax laws also discourage labor. High marginal tax rates penalize people for being productive, and this can be especially counterproductive for entrepreneurship and innovation.

Though we shouldn’t overlook how government discourages low-income people from being productively employed. Only the problem is more on the spending side of the fiscal equation.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, John Early and Phil Gramm share some depressing numbers about growing dependency in the United States.

During the 20 years before the War on Poverty was funded, the portion of the nation living in poverty had dropped to 14.7% from 32.1%. Since 1966, the first year with a significant increase in antipoverty spending, the poverty rate reported by the Census Bureau has been virtually unchanged. …Transfers targeted to low-income families increased in real dollars from an average of $3,070 per person in 1965 to $34,093 in 2016. …Transfers now constitute 84.2% of the disposable income of the poorest quintile of American households and 57.8% of the disposable income of lower-middle-income households. These payments also make up 27.5% of America’s total disposable income.

This massive expansion of redistribution has negatively impacted incentives to work.

The stated goal of the War on Poverty is not just to raise living standards, but also to make America’s poor more self-sufficient and to bring them into the mainstream of the economy. In that effort the war has been an abject failure, increasing dependency and largely severing the bottom fifth of earners from the rewards and responsibilities of work. …The expanding availability of antipoverty transfers has devastated the work effort of poor and lower-middle income families. By 1975 the lowest-earning fifth of families had 24.8% more families with a prime-work age head and no one working than did their middle-income peers. By 2015 this differential had risen to 37.1%. …The War on Poverty has increased dependency and failed in its primary effort to bring poor people into the mainstream of America’s economy and communal life. Government programs replaced deprivation with idleness, stifling human flourishing. It happened just as President Franklin Roosevelt said it would: “The lessons of history,” he said in 1935, “show conclusively that continued dependency upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber.”

In another WSJ column on the same topic, Peter Cove reached a similar conclusion.

America doesn’t have a worker shortage; it has a work shortage. The unemployment rate is at a 15-year low, but only 55% of Americans adults 18 to 64 have full-time jobs. Nearly 95 million people have removed themselves entirely from the job market. According to demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, the labor-force participation rate for men 25 to 54 is lower now than it was at the end of the Great Depression. The welfare state is largely to blame. …insisting on work in exchange for social benefits would succeed in reducing dependency. We have the data: Within 10 years of the 1996 reform, the number of Americans in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program fell 60%. But no reform is permanent. Under President Obama, federal poverty programs ballooned.

Edward Glaeser produced a similar indictment in an article for City Journal.

In 1967, 95 percent of “prime-age” men between the ages of 25 and 54 worked. During the Great Recession, though, the share of jobless prime-age males rose above 20 percent. Even today, long after the recession officially ended, more than 15 percent of such men aren’t working. …The rise of joblessness—especially among men—is the great American domestic crisis of the twenty-first century. It is a crisis of spirit more than of resources. …Proposed solutions that focus solely on providing material benefits are a false path. Well-meaning social policies—from longer unemployment insurance to more generous disability diagnoses to higher minimum wages—have only worsened the problem; the futility of joblessness won’t be solved with a welfare check. …various programs make joblessness more bearable, at least materially; they also reduce the incentives to find work. …The past decade or so has seen a resurgent progressive focus on inequality—and little concern among progressives about the downsides of discouraging work. …The decision to prioritize equality over employment is particularly puzzling, given that social scientists have repeatedly found that unemployment is the greater evil.

Why work, though, when government pays you not to work?

And that unfortunate cost-benefit analysis is being driven by ever-greater levels of dependency.

Writing for Forbes, Professor Jeffrey Dorfman echoed these findings.

…our current welfare system fails to prepare people to take care of themselves, makes poor people more financially fragile, and creates incentives to remain on welfare forever. …The first failure of government welfare programs is to favor help with current consumption while placing almost no emphasis on job training or anything else that might allow today’s poor people to become self-sufficient in the future. …It is the classic story of giving a man a fish or teaching him how to fish. Government welfare programs hand out lots of fish, but never seem to teach people how to fish for themselves. The problem is not a lack of job training programs, but rather the fact that the job training programs fail to help people. …The third flaw in the government welfare system is the way that benefits phase outs as a recipient’s income increases. …a poor family trying to escape poverty pays an effective marginal tax rate that is considerably higher than a middle class family and higher than or roughly equal to the marginal tax rate of a family in the top one percent.

I like that he also addressed problems such as implicit marginal tax rates and the failure of job-training programs.

Professor Lee Ohanian of the Hoover Institution reinforces the point that the welfare state provides lots of money in ways that stifle personal initiative.

Inequality is not an issue that policy should address. …Society, however, should care about creating economic opportunities for the lowest earners. …a family of four at the poverty level has about $22,300 per year of pre-tax income. Consumption for that same family of four on average, however, is about $44,000 per year, which means that their consumption level is about twice as high as their income. …We’re certainly providing many more resources to low-earning families today. But on the other hand, we have policies in place that either limit economic opportunities for low earners or distort the incentives for those earners to achieve prosperity.

I’ve been citing lots of articles, which might be tedious, so let’s take a break with a video about the welfare state from the American Enterprise Institute.

And if you like videos, here’s my favorite video about the adverse effects of the welfare state.

By the way, it isn’t just libertarians and conservatives who recognize the problem.

Coming from a left-of-center perspective, Catherine Rampell explains in the Washington Post how welfare programs discourage work.

…today’s social safety net discourages poor people from working, or at least from earning more money. …you might qualify for some welfare programs, such as food stamps, housing vouchers, child-care subsidies and Medicaid. But if you get a promotion, or longer hours, or a second job, or otherwise start making more, these benefits will start to evaporate — and sometimes quite abruptly. You can think about this loss of benefits as a kind of extra tax on low-income people. …Americans at or just above the poverty line typically face marginal tax rates of 34 percent. That is, for every additional dollar they earn, they keep only 66 cents. …One in 10 families with earnings close to the poverty line faces a marginal tax rate of at least 65 percent, the CBO found. …You don’t need to be a hardcore conservative to see how this system might make working longer hours, or getting a better job, less attractive than it might otherwise be.

To understand what this means, the Illinois Policy Institute calculated how poor people in the state are trapped in dependency.

The potential sum of welfare benefits can reach $47,894 annually for single-parent households and $41,237 for two-parent households. Welfare benefits will be available to some households earning as much as $74,880 annually. …A single mom has the most resources available to her family when she works full time at a wage of $8.25 to $12 an hour. Disturbingly, taking a pay increase to $18 an hour can leave her with about one-third fewer total resources (net income and government benefits). In order to make work “pay” again, she would need an hourly wage of $38 to mitigate the impact of lost benefits and higher taxes.

Agreeing that there’s a problem does not imply agreement about a solution.

Folks on the left think the solution to high implicit tax rates (i.e., the dependency trap) is to make benefits more widely available. In other words, don’t reduce handouts as income increases.

The other alternative is to make benefits less generous, which will simultaneously reduce implicit tax rates and encourage more work.

I’m sympathetic to the latter approach, but my view is that welfare programs should be designed and financed by state and local governments. We’re far more likely to see innovation as policy makers in different areas experiment with the best ways of preventing serious deprivation while also encouraging self-sufficiency.

I think we’ll find out that benefits should be lower, but maybe we’ll learn in certain cases that benefits should be expanded. But we won’t learn anything so long as there is a one-size-fits-all approach from Washington.

Let’s close with a political observation. A columnist for the New York Times is frustrated that many low-income voters are supporting Republicans because they see how their neighbors are being harmed by dependency.

Parts of the country that depend on the safety-net programs supported by Democrats are increasingly voting for Republicans who favor shredding that net. …The people in these communities who are voting Republican in larger proportions are those who are a notch or two up the economic ladder — the sheriff’s deputy, the teacher, the highway worker, the motel clerk, the gas station owner and the coal miner. And their growing allegiance to the Republicans is, in part, a reaction against what they perceive, among those below them on the economic ladder, as a growing dependency on the safety net, the most visible manifestation of downward mobility in their declining towns. …I’ve heard variations on this theme all over the country: people railing against the guy across the street who is collecting disability payments but is well enough to go fishing, the families using their food assistance to indulge in steaks.

It’s not my role to pontificate about politics, so I won’t address that part of the column. But I will say that I’ve also found that hostility to welfare is strongest among those who have first-hand knowledge of how dependency hurts people.

P.S. If you want evidence for why Washington should get out of the business of income redistribution, check out this visual depiction of the welfare state.

P.S. The Canadians can teach us some good lessons about welfare reform.

P.P.S. The Nordic nations also provide valuable lessons, at least from the don’t-do-this perspective.

P.P.P.S. Last but not least, there’s a Laffer-type relationship between welfare spending and poverty.

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Last September, I shared some very encouraging data showing how extreme poverty dramatically has declined in the developing world.

And I noted that this progress happened during a time when the “Washington Consensus” was resulting in “neoliberal” policies (meaning “classical liberal“) in those nations (confirmed by data from Economic Freedom of the World).

In other words, pro-market policies were the recipe for poverty reduction, not foreign aid or big government.

Sadly, the Washington Consensus has been supplanted. Bureaucracies such as the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are now pushing a statist agenda based on the bizarre theory that higher taxes and more spending somehow produce prosperity.

To add insult to injury, some people now want to rewrite history and argue that free markets don’t deserve credit for the poverty reduction that already has occurred.

Esteban Ortiz-Ospina, writing for Our World in Data, wants readers to conclude that redistribution programs deserve credit.

…the share of people living in extreme poverty around the world has fallen continuously over the last two centuries. …many often say that globalization in the form of ‘free-market capitalism’ is the main force to be thanked for such remarkable historical achievement. …this focus on ‘free-market capitalism’ alone is misguided. …Governments around the world have dramatically increased their potential to collect revenues in order to redistribute resources through social transfers… The reach of governments has grown substantially over the last century: the share of total output that governments control is much larger today than a century ago.

And for evidence, Mr. Ortiz-Ospina included this chart.

I shared a version of this data back in June, asserting that the explosion of social welfare spending made this “the western world’s most depressing chart.”

So does Ortiz-Ospina have a compelling argument? Does poverty go down as welfare spending goes up?

Nope. Johan Norberg points out that there is a gaping flaw in this argument. An enormous, gigantic hole.

Wow. This isn’t just a flaw. It’s malpractice. It’s absurd to argue that welfare spending in developed nations somehow led to poverty reduction in developing countries.

I hope Mr. Ortiz-Ospina is just an inexperienced intern, because if he really understands the data, one might be forced to conclude that he’s dishonest.

But let’s set that issue aside. Johan closes his video by explaining that poverty in rich nations declined before modern welfare states. I want to expand on that point.

Johan cited Martin Ravallion, so I tracked down his work. And here’s the chart he put together, which I’ve modified to show (outlined in red) that extreme poverty basically disappeared between 1820 and 1930.

And guess what?

That was the period when there was no welfare state. Not only is that apparent from Our World in Data, it’s also what we see in Vito Tanzi’s numbers.

Here’s Tanzi’s table, which I first shared five years ago. And I’ve circled in red the 1880-1930 data to underscore that there was virtually no redistribution during the years poverty was declining.

The bottom line is that poverty in the western world fell during the period of small government. Yet some people want to put the cart before the horse. They’re making the absurd argument that post-1950s welfare spending somehow reduced poverty before the 1930s.

That’s as absurd as Paul Krugman blaming a 2008 recession in Estonia on spending cuts that took place in 2009.

P.S. For those who want U.S.-specific data, it’s worth noting that dramatic reductions in American poverty all occurred before Washington launched the so-called “War on Poverty.”

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America has a major dependency problem. In recent decades, there’s been a significant increase in the number of working-age adults relying on handouts.

This is bad news for poor people and bad news for taxpayers. But it’s also bad news for the nation since it reflects an erosion of societal capital.

For all intents and purposes, people are being paid not to be productive.

Guided by the spirit of Calvin Coolidge, we need to reform the welfare state.

Professor Dorfman of the University of Georgia, in a column for Forbes, pinpoints the core problem.

The first failure of government welfare programs is to favor help with current consumption while placing almost no emphasis on job training or anything else that might allow today’s poor people to become self-sufficient in the future. …It is the classic story of giving a man a fish or teaching him how to fish. Government welfare programs hand out lots of fish, but never seem to teach people how to fish for themselves. The problem is not a lack of job training programs, but rather the fact that the job training programs fail to help people. In a study for ProPublica, Amy Goldstein documents that people who lost their jobs and participated in a federal job training program were less likely to be employed afterward than those who lost their jobs and did not receive any job training. That is, the job training made people worse off instead of better. …Right now, the government cannot teach anyone how to find a fish, let alone catch one.

And Peter Cove opines on the issue for the Wall Street Journal.

…the labor-force participation rate for men 25 to 54 is lower now than it was at the end of the Great Depression. The welfare state is largely to blame. More than a fifth of American men of prime working age are on Medicaid. According to the Census Bureau, nearly three-fifths of nonworking men receive federal disability benefits. The good news is that the 1996 welfare reform taught us how to reduce government dependency and get idle Americans back to work. …Within 10 years of the 1996 reform, the number of Americans in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program fell 60%.

Interestingly, European nations seem to be more interested in fixing the problem, perhaps because they’ve reached the point where reform is a fiscal necessity.

Let’s look at what happened when the Dutch tightened benefit rules.

A fascinating new study from economists in California and the Netherlands sheds light on how welfare dependency is passed from one generation to the next – and how to save children from lives of idleness.

A snowball effect across generations could arise if welfare dependency is transmitted from parents to their children, with potentially serious consequences for the future economic situation of children. …there is little evidence on whether this relationship is causal. Testing for the existence of a behavioural response, where children become benefit recipients because their parents were, is difficult… Our work overcomes these identification challenges by exploiting a 1993 reform in the Dutch Disability Insurance (DI) programme… The 1993 reform tightened DI eligibility for existing and future claimants, but exempted older cohorts currently on DI (age 45+) from the new rules. This reform generates quasi-experimental variation in DI use… Intuitively, the idea is to compare the children of parents who are just over 45 years of age to children whose parents are just under 45. .

Here’s the methodology of their research.

The first step is to understand the impact of the 1993 reform on parents. Figure 1 shows that parents who were just under the age 45 cut-off, and therefore subject to the harsher DI rules, are 5.5 percentage points more likely to exit DI by the year 1999 compared to parents just over the age 45 cut-off. These treated parents saw a 1,300 euro drop in payments on average. …the reform changed other outcomes as well. There is a strong rebound in labour earnings.

This chart from their research captures the discontinuity.

Here are the main results.

The second step is to see how children’s DI use changed based on whether the reform affected their parents. We measure a child’s cumulative use of DI as of 2014, by which time they are 37 years old on average. Figure 2 reveals a noticeable jump in child DI participation at the parental age cut-off of 45. There is an economically significant 1.1 percentage point drop for children if their parent was exposed to the reform, which translates into an 11% effect relative to the mean child participation rate of 10%. …welfare cultures, defined as a causal intergenerational link, exist.

This second chart illustrates the positive impact.

But here’s the most important part of the research.

Reducing access to redistribution to parents is a good way of boosting income and education for children.

…we examine whether a child’s taxable earnings and participation in other social support programmes change. Cumulative earnings up to 2014 rise by approximately €7,200 euros, or a little less than 2%, for children of parents subject to the less generous DI rules. In contrast, we find no detectable change in cumulative unemployment insurance receipt, general assistance (i.e. traditional cash welfare), or other miscellaneous safety net programs. Looking at a child’s educational attainment, there is intriguing evidence for anticipatory investments. When a parent is subject to the reform which tightened DI benefits, their child invests in 0.12 extra years of education relative to an overall mean of 11.5 years. …these findings provide suggestive evidence that children of treated parents plan for a future with less reliance on DI in part by investing in their labour market skills.

And it’s also worth noting that taxpayers benefit when welfare eligibility is restricted.

These strong intergenerational links between parents and children have sizable fiscal consequences for the government’s long term budget. Cumulative DI payments to children of the targeted parents are 16% lower. This is a substantial additional saving for the government’s budget, especially since there is no evidence that children substitute these reductions in DI income for additional income from other social assistance programmes. Furthermore, there is a fiscal gain resulting from the increased taxes these children pay due to their increased labour market earnings. Overall, we calculate that through the year 2013, children account for 21% of the net fiscal savings of the 1993 Dutch reform in present discounted value terms. This share is projected to increase to 40% over time.

Ryan Streeter of American Enterprise Institute explains that other European nations also are reforming.

Welfare reformers might draw some lessons from unlikely places, such as Scandinavia. While progressives like to uphold Nordic democratic socialism as a model for America, the Scandinavian welfare systems are arguably more pro-work than ours… For instance, to deal with declining labor force participation, Denmark eliminated permanent disability benefits for people under 40 and refashioned its system to make employment central. Sweden reformed its welfare system to focus on rapid transitions from unemployment to work. Their program lowers jobless assistance the longer one is on welfare. The Nordic model is more focused on eliminating reasons not to work such as caregiving or lack of proper training than providing income replacement. Similarly, the British government combined six welfare programs with varying requirements into a single “universal credit.” The benefit is based on a sliding scale and decreases as a recipient’s earnings increase, replacing several differing formulas for phasing out of welfare programs with one. An evaluation of the new program, which encourages work, found that 86 percent of claimants were trying to increase their work hours and 77 percent were trying to earn more, compared to 38 percent and 55 percent, respectively, under the previous system. …Scandinavia and Britain learned a while ago that successful welfare reform is not just about how much money a country spends on people who earn too little. It’s really about how to help them find and keep a good job. It’s time for America to catch up.

Amen.

For what it’s worth, I think we’ll be most likely to get good results if we get Washington out of the redistribution business.

In effect, block grant all means-tested programs to the states and then phase out the federal funding. That would give states the ability to experiment and they could learn from each other about the best way of helping the truly needy while minimizing incentives for idleness.

P.S. This WIzard-of-Id parody is a very good explanation of why handouts discourage productive work.

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I’m conflicted.

I’ve repeatedly expressed skepticism about the idea of governments providing a “basic income” because I fear the work ethic will (further) erode if people automatically receive a substantial chunk of money.

Moreover, I also fear that a basic income will lead to an ever-expanding burden of government spending, particularly once net beneficiaries figure out they can vote themselves more money.

Given these concerns, I should be happy about this report from the New York Times.

For more than a year, Finland has been testing the proposition that the best way to lift economic fortunes may be the simplest: Hand out money without rules or restrictions on how people use it. The experiment with so-called universal basic income has captured global attention… Now, the experiment is ending. The Finnish government has opted not to continue financing it past this year, a reflection of public discomfort with the idea of dispensing government largess free of requirements that its recipients seek work. …the Finnish government’s decision to halt the experiment at the end of 2018 highlights a challenge to basic income’s very conception. Many people in Finland — and in other lands — chafe at the idea of handing out cash without requiring that people work. …Finland’s goals have been modest and pragmatic. The government hoped that basic income would send more people into the job market to revive a weak economy. …The basic income trial, which started at the beginning of 2017 and will continue until the end of this year, has given monthly stipends of 560 euros ($685) to a random sample of 2,000 unemployed people aged 25 to 58. Recipients have been free to do as they wished… The Finnish government was keen to see what people would do under such circumstances. The data is expected to be released next year, giving academics a chance to analyze what has come of the experiment.

The reason I’m conflicted is that the current welfare state – both in the United States and other developed nations – is bad for both taxpayers and poor people.

So I like the idea of experimentation. There has to be a better way of alleviating genuine suffering without trapping poor people in dependency or punishing taxpayers.

Indeed, one of my arguments for radical decentralization in America is that states will try different approaches and we’ll have a much better chance of learning what works and what doesn’t.

And maybe we’ll learn that there are some benefits of providing a basic income. But, as reported by the U.K.-based Guardian, it’s unclear whether the Finnish experiment lasted long enough or was comprehensive enough to teach us anything.

The scheme – aimed primarily at seeing whether a guaranteed income might incentivise people to take up paid work by smoothing out gaps in the welfare system…it was hoped it would shed light on policy issues such as whether an unconditional payment might reduce anxiety among recipients and allow the government to simplify a complex social security system… Olli Kangas, an expert involved in the trial, told the Finnish public broadcaster YLE: “Two years is too short a period to be able to draw extensive conclusions from such a big experiment. We should have had extra time and more money to achieve reliable results.”

I will be interested to see whether researchers generate any conclusions when they look at the two years of data from the Finnish experiment.

That being said, there already has been some research that underscores my concerns.

The OECD is not my favorite international bureaucracy, but its recent survey on Finland included some sobering estimates on the cost of a nationwide basic income.

In a basic income scenario, a lump-sum benefit replaces a number of existing benefits, financed by increasing income taxation by nearly 30% or around 4% of GDP. …the basic income requires significant increases to income taxation. …Financing a basic income at a meaningful level thus would require considerable additional tax revenue, and heavier taxation of income would at least partially undo any improvement in work incentives.

And in a report on basic income last year, the OECD poured more cold water on the idea.

…large tax-revenue changes are needed to finance a BI at meaningful levels, and tax reforms would therefore need to be an integral part of budget-neutral BI proposals. …abolishing tax-free allowances and making BI taxable means that everybody would pay income tax on the BI, and on all their other income. Tax burdens would go up for most people as a result, further increasing tax-to-GDP ratios that are currently already at a record-high in the OECD area. …There are also major concerns about unintended consequences of a BI. An especially prominent one is that unconditional income support would reduce the necessity for paid work.

Indeed, it’s difficult to see how work incentives aren’t adversely affected. Why go through the hassle of being employed when you can sit at home and play computer games all day?

P.S. Given the option of voting on a basic income in 2016, Swiss voters overwhelmingly rejected the notion.

P.P.S. Former Vice President Joe Biden actually agrees with me about one of the downsides of basic income.

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