Posts Tagged ‘Dependency’

When I wrote earlier this year about “Europe’s suicidal welfare state,” it wasn’t so that I could make points about excessive spending and demographic decline.

Yes, those are very important issues. But I was focusing instead on the fact that Europe’s welfare states have a masochistic habit of giving handouts to terrorists.

So I wasn’t surprised to learn that some of the dirtbags who launched the recent terror attacks in Paris have been sponging off taxpayers.

Here are some excerpts from a story in the U.K.-based Daily Mail.

The former wife of Paris bomber Ibrahim Abdeslam has broken her silence to say he was a jobless layabout… Speaking from her home in Moleenbeek, Brussels, Niama, 36, said: ‘…He often slept during the day...Despite his diploma as an electrician, he found no job,’… Money was tight for the couple. ‘We lived on unemployment benefit which was only €1,000 a month between us so we worried a lot about money.’

By the way, money wasn’t “tight for the couple.” The handouts they got from the Belgian taxpayers gave them an income higher than the world average. And I’m guessing that the unemployment benefit wasn’t the only bit of mooching they did given the destructive lavishness of European welfare systems.

Ibrahim wasn’t the only terrorist with a snout in the public trough.

Here are some details from a story in the American Spectator.

Before he blew himself up outside a French soccer stadium, Bilal Hadfi lived in state-subsidized housing. …Open wallets as much as open borders doom Europe. Harboring shiftless populations alienated from the surrounding culture by religion asks for trouble. Give them blank checks and watch them fill up the blank spaces of indolence with destruction. …They pay back the dole with gunfire.

These are just two of the terrorists, but I’m guessing we’ll soon learn that others also were mooching off taxpayers.

And I can’t help but wonder whether the self-loathing that presumably occurs among some welfare recipients actually contributes to radicalism.

By the way, the Moocher Hall of Fame has a special section for deadbeats who want to kill taxpayers. Members of this Terror Section of the MHoF include:

* Abdul from Australia is an esteemed member of the Hall of Fame’s terror wing, having received 19 years of welfare while plotting to kill the people who were paying for his life of leisure.

* Keeping with that theme, let’s also recognize Anjem, who got elected to the Hall of Fame for collecting about $40,000-per year in handouts while spewing hate and recruiting other “fanatics to copy him by going on benefits.”

* The Tsarnaev brothers are most infamous for the Boston Marathon bombing, but let’s also revile them for being scroungers who thought it was okay to live off the work of others.

* Jihadi John, the ISIS dirtbag who is infamous for beheading innocent people, grew up with a family that sponged off British taxpayers for two decades.

P.S. In a truly spectacular example of government incompetence, a British jihadist actually was employed in law enforcement, ostensibly to fight against Islamic extremism!

P.P.S. American readers shouldn’t get too smug about the stupidity of our terrorism-subsidizing cousins on the other side of the Atlantic. We also have self-destructive policies that subsidize terrorism.

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Three years ago, I shared a chart about the fiscal burden of the welfare state, calling it the picture that says a thousand word.

It’s astounding, after all, that taxpayers spend so much money on means-tested programs and get such miserable results.

Indeed, if we took all the money spent on various welfare programs and added it up, it would amount to $60,000 for every poor household.

Yet the handouts for poor people generally (but not always) are way below that level, so where does all the money go?

Well, this eye-popping flowchart (click to enlarge) from the House Ways & Means Committee is one way of answering that question. As you can see, there are dozens of programs spread across several agencies and departments.

In other words, a huge chunk of anti-poverty spending gets absorbed by a bloated, jumbled, and overlapping bureaucracy (and this doesn’t even count the various bureaucracies in each state that also administer all these welfare programs).

This is akin to a spider web of dependency. No wonder people get trapped in poverty.

Fortunately, we have a very simple solution to this mess. Just get the federal government out of the business of redistributing income. We already got very good results by reforming one welfare program in the 1990s. So let’s build on that success.

P.S. Leftists generally will oppose good reforms, both because of their ideological belief in redistribution and also because overpaid bureaucrats (who would have to find honest work if we had real change) are a major part of their coalition. But there are some honest statists who admit the current system hurts poor people.

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In my speeches, I routinely argue that an aging population is one of the reasons why we need genuine entitlement reform.

A modest-sized welfare state may be feasible if a country has a “population pyramid,” I explain, Welfare State Wagon Cartoonsbut it’s a recipe for fiscal chaos when changing demographics result in fewer and fewer people pulling the wagon and more and more people riding in the wagon.

And if you somehow doubt that’s what is happening in America, check out this very sobering image showing that America’s population pyramid is turning into a population cylinder.

The bottom line is that demographics and entitlements will mean a Greek fiscal future for America and other nations.

To bolster my case (particularly for folks who might be skeptical of a libertarian message), I frequently cite pessimistic long-run fiscal data from international bureaucracies such as the IMF, BIS, and OECD.

I’m not a big fan of these organizations because they routinely endorse statist policies, but I figure skeptics will be more likely to listen to me if I point out that even left-leaning international bureaucracies agree the public sector is getting too large.

And now I have more evidence to cite. A new report from the International Monetary Fund explores “The Fiscal Consequences of Shrinking Populations.” Here’s what you need to know.

Declining fertility and increasing longevity will lead to a slower-growing, older world population. …For the world, the share of the population older than age 65 could increase from 12 percent today to 38 percent by 2100. …These developments would place public finances of countries under pressure, through two channels. First, spending on age-related programs (pensions and health) would rise. Without further reforms, these outlays would increase by 9 percentage points of GDP and 11 percentage points of GDP in more and less developed countries, respectively, between now and 2100. The fiscal consequences are potentially dire…large tax increases that could stymie economic growth.

Let’s now look at a couple of charts from the study.

The one of the left shows that one-third of developed nations already have negative population growth, and that number will jump to about 60 percent by 2050. And because that means fewer workers to support more old people, the chart on the right shows how the dependency ratio will worsen over time.

So what do these demographic changes mean for fiscal policy?

Well, if you live in a sensible jurisdiction such as Hong Kong or Singapore, there’s not much impact, even though birthrates are very low, because government is small and people basically are responsible for setting aside income for their retirement years.

And if live in a semi-sensible jurisdiction such as Australia or Chile, the impact is modest because personal retirement accounts preclude Social Security-type fiscal challenges.

But if you live just about anywhere else, in places where government somehow is supposed to provide pensions and health care, the situation is very grim.

Here’s another chart from the new IMF report. If you look at developed nations, you can see a big increase in the projected burden of government spending, mostly because of rising expenditures for health care.

At this stage, I can’t resist pointing out that this is one reason why the enactment of Obamacare was a spectacularly irresponsible decision.

But let’s not get sidetracked.

Returning to the IMF report, the authors contemplate possible policy responses.

They look at increased migration, but at best that’s a beggar-thy-neighbor approach. They look at increased labor force participation, which would be a very good development, but it’s hard to see that happening when nations have redistribution policies that discourage people from being in the workforce.

And the report is very skeptical about the prospects of government-induced increases in birthrates.

Boosting birth rates could slow down population aging and gradually reduce fiscal pressures. …However, a “birth rate” solution to aging is unlikely to work for most countries. The pronatalist policies seem to have only modest effects on the number of births, although they might affect the timing of births.

So that means the problem will need to be addressed through fiscal policy.

The IMF’s proposed solutions include some misguided policies, but I was surprisingly pleased by the recognition that steps were needed to limit the growth of government.

Regarding pensions, the IMF suggested higher retirement ages, which is a second-best option, while also suggesting private retirement savings, which is the ideal solution.

Reforming public pension systems can help offset the effects of aging. Raising retirement ages is an especially attractive option… For example, raising retirement ages over 2015–2100 by an additional five years (about 7 months per decade) beyond what is already legislated would reduce pension spending by about 2 percentage points of GDP by 2100 (relative to the baseline) in both the more and less developed countries. …increasing the role of private retirement saving schemes could be helpful in offsetting the potential decline in lifetime retirement income.

But if you recall from above, the biggest problem is rising health care costs.

And kudos to the IMF for supporting market-driven competition. Even more important, though, the international bureaucracy recognizes that the key is to limit the government’s health care spending to the growth of the private economy (sort of a a healthcare version of Mitchell’s Golden Rule).

…health care reform can be effective in containing the growth of public health spending. …There is past success in improving health outcomes without raising costs through promoting some degree of competition among insurers and service providers. …Containing the growing costs of health care would help reduce long-term fiscal risks. On average, health care costs are projected to increase faster than economic growth. …Assuming policies are able to keep the growth of health care costs per capita in line with GDP per capita, health care spending will increase at a slower rate, reflecting only demographics. Under this scenario, public health care spending pressures would be greatly subdued: by 2100, health spending would be reduced by 4½ percentage points of GDP in the more developed countries.

Interestingly, of all the options examined by the IMF, capping the growth of health care spending had the biggest positive impact on long-run government spending.

So what lessons can we learn?

Most important, the IMF study underscores the importance of the Medicaid reform and Medicare reform proposals that have been included in recent budgets on Capitol Hill.

In addition to making necessary structural changes, both of these reforms cap the annual growth of health care spending, which is precisely what the IMF report says will generate the largest savings.

So we’re actually in a very unusual situation. Some lawmakers want to do the right thing for the right reason at the right time.

But not all of them. Some politicians, either because of malice or ignorance, think we should do nothing, even though that will mean a very unpleasant future.

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Some issues never seem to get resolved. One would think, for instance, that leftists would be more cautious about pushing for a bigger welfare state given the fiscal crisis in Europe.

But we have folks like Bernie Sanders openly arguing we should be more like nations such as Denmark and Sweden.

To give some credit to the Vermont Senator, he’s at least smart enough to pick Scandinavian nations that compensate for the damaging impact of high taxes and excessive spending by being very market-oriented in all other respects.

Though I suspect he’d be horrified to know that he’s basically endorsing a laissez-faire approach to policies such as trade and regulation.

But let’s set aside the quirky candidacy of Bernie Sanders and focus on whether the United States, as a general rule, should be more like Europe.

To be sure, this is a very imprecise way to look at the issue since “Europe” includes very market-oriented countries such as Switzerland and the United Kingdom (both of which rank above the United States for overall economic freedom) as well as very statist nations such as Italy, France, and Greece.

But if you take the average of European nations, there’s no question that the continent would be further to the left than America on the statism spectrum.

So we should be able to learn some lessons by making general comparisons.

Let’s go to the other side of the world to get some insight on this issue. Oliver Hartwich is an economist with the New Zealand Initiative, and he looks at the negative consequences of the welfare state in his new publication, Why Europe Failed. He starts by sharing the grim data on how the burden of government spending has increased.

Government spending as a percentage of GDP increased dramatically across Europe all through the 20th century (Table 1). …Since the immediate post-World War II and reconstruction era, government spending has increased to unprecedented levels. The most extreme case is France where the state now accounts for well over half of the economy. …These spending rises have not been driven by the core areas of government spending of law and order, defence and certain public goods. …these European countries spent almost 30% of GDP on welfare alone, which is more than the total of government spending before World War II.

And here’s the Table he referenced.

Very similar to the data I shared back in 2013 for the simple reason that we’re both citing the superb work of Vito Tanzi.

Oliver adds some analysis, noting that Europe’s voters have sold themselves into dependency.

Bread and circuses – or panem et circenses in the Latin original – were the means of bribing the masses in ancient Rome. Modern Europe is witnessing a similar phenomenon. …Unfortunately, it is often overlooked that government can only bribe the people with their own money. …Buying European citizens’ loyalty for their mixed economy welfare states has effectively enslaved them.

He then shares lessons for New Zealand, but they’re also lessons for the United States.

…we have to make sure we do not repeat Europe’s mistakes. …be watchful of the rise of the welfare state. In Europe, the welfare state was a means of buying political power. Of course, the bribed electorate always paid for its own bribes. However, the arrangement worked for as long as new spending commitments could be financed through higher taxes, more debt, or indeed a combination of both. As government spending has now reached around 50% of GDP, and as the debt load stands at worrying levels, the European welfare state model has reached its limits. … we have the luxury of being three or four decades behind Europe’s demography curve. But this does not have to mean that we will be experiencing Europe’s problems 30 or 40 years later. It should mean that we have 30 or 40 years of finding ways to prevent a European replay by finding different answers to the challenges facing Europe today.

Here’s a short video of Hartwich discussing his work and its implications.

Now let’s look at another source of information. And we’ll actually deal with an argument being peddled by Bernie Sanders.

In an article for the Mises Institute, Ryan McMaken looks at the assertion that the United States has the highest poverty rate in the developed world.

Bernie Sanders claimed that the United States has the highest rate of childhood poverty. …UNICEF…is probably the source of Sanders’s factoid… Sanders probably doesn’t even know what he means by “major country”.

Though maybe the OECD is the source of Senator Sanders’ data. After all, as Ryan explains, some organizations are completely dishonest in that their supposed poverty data actually measures income distribution rather than poverty.

We get much more insight, though, once we have a look at what UNICEF means by “poverty rate.” In this case, UNICEF (and many other organizations) measure the poverty rate as a percentage of the national median household income. …The problem here, of course, is that…the median income in the US is much higher than the median income in much of Europe. So, even someone who earns under 60% of the median income in the US will, in many cases, have higher income than someone who earns the median income in, say, Portugal.

McMaken then crunches the data to see what actually happens if you compare the poverty level of income in the United States to overall income in other industrialized nations.

So what’s the bottom line from this data?

The answer is that it’s better to be a “poor” person in the United States than an average person in many European nations.

…a person at 60% of median  income in the US still has a larger income than the median household in Chile, Czech Rep., Greece, Hungary, Portugal, and several others. And the poverty income in the US is very close to matching the median income in Italy, Japan, Spain, and the UK.

In other words, Bernie Sanders is wrong, UNICEF is wrong, and the OECD is wrong.

Poverty in the United States is not high.

Indeed, experts who have looked at actual measures of deprivation have concluded that the real poverty rate in the United States is relatively low. Even when compared with the more market-oriented countries in Northern Europe.

Last but not least, let’s look at one more Europe-America comparison, just in case the aforementioned data wasn’t sufficiently compelling. Check out this map showing how many young adults still live with their parents (h/t: Paul Kirby).

As pointed out above, Europe is not monolithic. The Northern European economies lean more toward free markets than the Southern European economies, so this map presumably captures some of that difference (though I imagine culture plays a role as well).

But for purposes of today’s analysis, our message is more basic. Simply stated, the United States should not be more like Europe. Instead, we should seek to be more like Hong Kong and Singapore.

Assuming, of course, that the goal is to have policies that promote prosperity.

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Federal government redistribution programs don’t work.

We’ve ignored the lessons of history about the dangers of government intervention, so is it any mystery that we now have millions of people mired in dependency.

Yet some people in Washington want to double down on failure.

Chris Edwards of the Cato Institute, joined by Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center, are understandably distressed that so many politicians – on both sides of the aisle – want to expand the amount of money being redistributed by the federal government. In a new Tax and Budget Bulletin, they make a very compelling case that the so-called earned income tax credit should be abolished rather than expanded.

Here’s the big picture.

…the earned income tax credit (EITC)…is a huge program. In 2015 it will provide an estimated $69 billion in benefits to 28 million recipients. The EITC is the largest federal cash transfer program for low-income households. …While the EITC is administered through the tax code, it is primarily a spending program. The EITC is “refundable,” meaning that individuals who pay no income taxes are nonetheless eligible to receive a payment from the U.S. Treasury. Of the $69 billion in benefits this year, about 88 percent, or $60 billion, is spending.

Now let’s look at some of the details. As is so often the case with government programs, the EITC started small but then quickly expanded.

In the early 1970s, policymakers considered ways to combat the anti-work effects of the growing welfare state. But rather than reining in the welfare state, they decided to expand it in 1975 by enacting the EITC. The credit was aimed at reviving work incentives… Initially, it was a 10- percent wage credit with a maximum value of $400… The EITC is a much larger program today than in 1975. It has credit rates up to 45 percent and a maximum credit of $6,242 in 2015. … expansions in 1986, 1990, 1993, and 2009 greatly increased the costs. …The EITC has increasingly become a spending program over time. The refundable portion of benefits has risen from 70 percent in 1990 to about 88 percent today.

Here’s a chart from their study showing both the growing number of dependents and the growing burden on taxpayers.

I have to imagine that this makes the EITC the fastest-growing redistribution program in Washington.

Chris and Veronique then list some of the reasons why the EITC is a harmful form of income redistribution.

First, it drives down wages, which hurts low-skilled workers who can’t get EITC payments while also providing undeserved subsidies for employers.

One side effect of the EITC is that, to the extent it works by pushing down market wages, it ends up hurting low earners who receive no EITC or a small EITC— mainly childless workers. The labor-supply effect of the EITC also means that the program acts partly as a subsidy to businesses that hire lower-skilled workers because they are able to pay reduced market wages.

Second, while supporters correctly argue that the EITC encourages poor people to enter the labor force (the handouts are tied to earning money), they conveniently overlook the fact that the program penalizes people who want to work more hours and climb the economic ladder.

…people have an incentive to reduce hours worked in both the flat and phase-out ranges of the credit. As it turns out, about three-quarters of people taking the EITC are in those two ranges where the work incentives are negative. …Consider a single parent with two children, as in Figure 2. She would have a disincentive to increase her work effort in the large income range from $13,870 all the way to $44,454.

Here’s a table from the report. The last column shows the “phase-out rate,” which is akin to a marginal tax rate on workers as they seek to earn more income. Keep in mind that these workers, depending on their incomes, will also be paying the payroll tax and the income tax.

So it’s easy to see why poor people face very high marginal tax rates that discourage them from additional productive effort.

Third, the EITC is riddled with fraud.

The EITC error rate has been more than 20 percent since at least the 1980s. The Internal Revenue Service reports that the EITC error and fraud rate in 2014 was 27 percent, which amounted to $18 billion in overpayments.

Though I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. There’s lots of Medicare fraud, Medicaid fraud, Food Stamps fraud,  and disability fraud, so this just seems to be an inevitable additional cost when governments spend money.

Fourth, the EITC is absurdly complex (like other parts of the tax code).

The EITC is a particularly complex credit. Benefits change as income rises, with four phase-in rates and three phase-out rates. It is adjusted by filing status and number of children. The rules regarding child eligibility are complex due to issues such as separation and divorce. There are rules and calculations regarding earned income, investment income, and adjusted gross income. …For individuals, the IRS guidebook for the EITC (Publication 596) is 37 pages long. But the rules are so complicated that more than two-thirds of all tax returns claiming the EITC are done by paid preparers.

Fifth, like all other forms of government spending, it’s important to calculate the economic burden that is imposed when resources are taken from the productive sector of the economy and transferred to government.

The process of extracting taxes damages the economy because it causes people to reduce their productive activities, such as working and investing. The harm from the behavioral responses to higher taxes is called “deadweight losses.” For the federal income tax, studies have found, on average, that the deadweight loss of raising taxes by a dollar is roughly 30 to 50 cents. … expanding the EITC—or any other federal spending program—would ultimately mean higher taxes, and thus more tax distortions and higher deadweight losses.

So what’s the bottom line?

Well, since great minds think alike, you won’t be surprised to see that Chris and Veronique also want to get the federal government out of the redistribution racket.

The EITC should not be expanded. Indeed, the best long-term solution would be to end the EITC, while also cutting other welfare programs… The credit creates a modest increase in workforce participation by single mothers, but that benefit is outweighed by the work disincentives during the phase-out range, billions of dollars of errors and fraud, substantial paperwork costs, and the damage caused by the higher taxes needed to fund the program.


As I’ve repeatedly explained, redistribution programs are bad news for both poor people and taxpayers.

Yet our statist friends want to make the current system worse, with proposals for a government-guaranteed income. And they’re willing to lie to advance their agenda.

P.S. Click here for a video that explains why free markets are better than redistribution if you really want to help the less fortunate.

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It’s no exaggeration to say that a nation’s long-run vitality and prosperity are correlated with the spirit of independence and self-reliance among its people.

Simply stated, if too many people thinks it’s okay to ride in the wagon of government dependency, that a troubling sign that social or cultural capital has eroded.

Government policy obviously plays a role, both because politicians create various redistribution programs and also because they can set rules that help determine whether there is any stigma for relying on taxpayers.

Some lawmakers even think recipients should be publicly identified, in part to weed out fraudsters and also to discourage dependency. Here are some passages from a story in the Washington Post.

If you receive government assistance in the state of Maine, Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald thinks the public has a right to know about it. …Macdonald said a bill will be submitted during Maine’s next legislative session “asking that a Web site be created containing the names, addresses, length of time on assistance and the benefits being collected by every individual on the dole.” He added: “After all, the public has a right to know how its money is being spent.” …Macdonald told the Portland Press Herald that …“I hope this makes people think twice about applying for welfare.” …Publicly posting personal information, he said, could encourage people to go after those “gaming the system.”

Needless to say, this approach causes great consternation for some folks on the left.

Here’s some of what Dana Milbank wrote in his Washington Post column.

Rick Brattin, a young Republican state representative in Missouri, has…introduced House Bill 813, making it illegal for food-stamp recipients to use their benefits “to purchase cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood, or steak.” …This is less about public policy than about demeaning public-benefit recipients. The surf-and-turf bill is one of a flurry of new legislative proposals at the state and local level to dehumanize and even criminalize the poor.

I admit it’s paternalistic, but if taxpayers are paying for someone else’s food, then shouldn’t they have the right to insist that recipients don’t buy junk food?

My view, of course, is that the federal government shouldn’t be in the business of redistributing income, but that’s an issue we discussed a few days ago.

Milbank also is upset that some lawmakers don’t want welfare benefits spent on frivolous things.

…the Kansas legislature passed House Bill 2258, punishing the poor by limiting their cash withdrawals of welfare benefits to $25 per day and forbidding them to use their benefits “in any retail liquor store, casino, gaming establishment, jewelry store, tattoo parlor, massage parlor, body piercing parlor, spa, nail salon, lingerie shop, tobacco paraphernalia store, vapor cigarette store, psychic or fortune telling business, bail bond company, video arcade, movie theater, swimming pool, cruise ship, theme park, dog or horse racing facility, pari-mutuel facility, or sexually oriented business . . . or in any business or retail establishment where minors under age 18 are not permitted.” …another state that prohibits welfare funds for cruise ships is true-blue Massachusetts.

Again, I have to ask why it’s unreasonable for taxpayers to put limits on how welfare funds are spent?

Setting aside my desire to get Washington out of the business of maintaining a welfare state, shouldn’t the people paying the bills have some right to decide whether they want recipients going to massage parlors and casinos?

Let’s now look at a very real-world example of how our friends on the left are trying to make dependency easier and more respectable.

They now want to make it easier and less discomforting for folks to get food stamps. Here are some excerpts from a story in the Daily Caller.

A report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) looked at whether it should get rid of in-person interviews for those who apply to receive benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is commonly known as food stamps. …the USDA with the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) conducted a limited real-world test to see if the in-person interviews are needed.

The report looks at test cases in Utah and Oregon to gauge the impact on “client and worker outcomes,” but obviously didn’t consider the impact on taxpayers.

The report says that the increase of participants from 17 million in 2000 to nearly 47 million recipients in 2014 is one reason why the application process should be made easier and less costly, but others have argued that more relaxed entry requirements into the program are the very reason it has expanded so much.

The latter group is correct. If people can sign up for freebies over the phone, with very weak verification procedures, then it should go without saying that the burden on taxpayers will grow even faster.

And for purposes of our discussion today, this proposal would make it even easier for people to become dependents. The government already has turned food stamps into a welfare-state version of a debit card, which means that recipients feel less conspicuous about relying on taxpayers. Now they wouldn’t even have to visit a food stamp office when first signing up for the system!

The bottom line is that it will be very healthy for our nation if most people feel reluctant and/or embarrassed to become wards of the state.

Fortunately, there are some folks who already have this self-reliant streak. Here’s a blurb from some analysis by Angela Rachidi for the American Enterprise Institute.

…research shows that a sizeable number of eligible people do not participate in SNAP because they do not want government assistance. According to a 2003 USDA report on the subject, 27% of eligible non-participants indicated that they would not enroll in the program even if they were assured they were eligible. The report cited the desire to feel independent as the primary driver in not wanting benefits.

Thank goodness there are still a non-trivial number of Americans who don’t want to mooch off taxpayers.

By the way, you may be shocked to learn that the people of California are the least likely to sign up for food stamps.

Too bad the folks in Maine, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington don’t have the same spirit of self reliance.

Heck, Vermont’s already famous for having the top spot in the Moocher Index.

P.S. While Dana Milbank apparently thinks there shouldn’t be any restrictions on food stamps, most taxpayers probably won’t be pleased to see these examples of their money being misspent.

Then Mr. Milbank can start investigating other examples of fraud, starting with Medicaid and the disability program.

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As we get deeper into an election season, many politicians feel compelled to discuss how to deal with poverty.  And some of them may even be serious about trying to improve the system.

This hopefully will lead to big-picture discussions of key issues, such as why the poverty rate stopped falling in the mid-1960s.

If so, it helps to look past the headline numbers and actually understand the scope of the problem.

Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute explains that the official poverty data from the Census Bureau overstates the number of poor people.

…the official poverty rate is a positive embarrassment today. The poverty rate manifestly cannot do the single thing it was intended for: to count the number of people in our country subsisting below a fixed and absolute “poverty line.” Among its many other shortcomings, this index implicitly assumes that a family’s annual reported income is identical to its spending power… But income and spending patterns no longer track for the lowest income strata in modern America. …the bottom quintile of US households spent 130% more than their reported pretax income. The disparity between spending and income levels for poorer Americans has been gradually widening over time.

Though the shortcomings of the Census Bureau sometimes largely don’t matter because advocates of bigger government arbitrarily choose different numbers that further exaggerate the degree of poverty in the United States.

In a column for National Review, the Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector exposes the dishonest tactic (promoted by the Obama Administration and used by the OECD) of measuring income differences instead of actual poverty.

The Left often claims that the U.S has a far higher poverty rate than other developed nations have. These claims are based on a “relative poverty” standard, in which being “poor” is defined as having an income below 50 percent of the national median. Since the median income in the United States is substantially higher than the median income in most European countries, these comparisons establish a higher hurdle for escaping from “poverty” in the U.S. than is found elsewhere.

Based on honest apples-to-apples numbers, the United States is just as capable as other developed nations of minimizing material deprivation.

A more meaningful analysis would compare countries against a uniform standard. …Garfinkel and his co-authors do exactly that. They measure the percentage of people in each country who fall below the poverty-income threshold in the U.S. ($24,008 per year for a family of four in 2014). The authors reasonably broaden the measure of income to include “non-cash” benefits such as food stamps, the earned-income tax credit, and equivalent programs in other nations. They also subtract taxes paid by low-income families, which are heavy in Europe. …the differences in poverty according to this uniform standard were very small. For example, the poverty rate in the U.S. was 8.7 percent, while the average among other affluent countries was around 7.6 percent. The rate in Germany was 7.3 percent, and in Sweden, it was 7.5 percent. Using a slightly higher uniform standard set at 125 percent of the U.S. poverty-income thresholds, the authors find that the U.S. actually has a slightly lower poverty rate than other affluent countries.

These numbers probably disappoint leftists who want to believe that European nations are somehow more generous and more effective in dealing with poverty.

But Robert explains that advocates of smaller government and individual responsibility should not be happy because the federal government’s profligacy isn’t helping poor people become self sufficient.

It is, of course, a good thing that left-wing claims of widespread deprivation in the U.S. are inaccurate. But government welfare policy should be about more than shoveling out a trillion dollars per year in “free” benefits. When President Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty, he sought to decrease welfare dependence and increase self-sufficiency: the ability of family to support itself above poverty without the need for government handouts. By that score, the War on Poverty has been a $24 trillion flop. While self-sufficiency improved dramatically in the decades before the War on Poverty started, for the last 45 years, it has been at a standstill.

Robert Doar and Angela Rachidi of the American Enterprise Institute make a very similar point about the welfare state failing to promote self sufficiency.

Recently released data show that the official poverty rate was 14.8% in 2014, only slightly below the 15% in poverty in 1970. And this is despite large increases in federal spending on anti-poverty programs.  Spending on these programs has increased almost tenfold in constant dollars since the early 1970s and increased from 1.0% of GDP in 1972 to 3.8% in 2012… Where does this leave us? If helping people achieve self-sufficiency and be free of government assistance is the goal, the safety net has largely failed. But if reducing material hardship is the goal, it performs well.

I would make a very important change to the above passage. Doar and Rachidi write that the poverty rate hasn’t declined “despite large increases” in supposed anti-poverty spending. Based on the evidence, it would be more accurate to say that poverty has stayed high “because of large increases.”

Simply stated, when you subsidize something, you get more of it.

Anyhow, all this matters for three reasons.

  • First, dependency is bad news for poor people, particularly when government subsidizes multi-generational poverty and unwed motherhood.
  • Second, the current welfare state is bad news for taxpayers, who are financing a $1 trillion income-redistribution system that fails in its most important task.
  • Third, the current system is bad news for the economy because millions of people are bribed to be out of the labor force, thus lowering potential output.

Let’s summarize what we know. The official poverty rate exaggerates the actual number of poor people by failing to properly measure income, but that may not matter much since proponents of more redistribution prefer to use dishonest numbers that are even more distorted.

And we also know that the welfare state is capable of redistributing lots of money, but also that it does a terrible job of promoting self sufficiency. Indeed, it’s almost certainly the case that massive levels of redistribution have had a negative effect.

So what’s the solution to this mess?

Folks on the left want even more of the same. But why should we expect that to have any positive effect? Indeed, it’s more likely that an expansion of the welfare state will simply lure more people into lives of sloth and dependency.

Some people on the right want to replace the welfare state with a guaranteed or basic income. This has some theoretical appeal, but it is based on the very shaky assumption that politicians could be convinced to completely repeal all existing redistribution programs.

Which is why the most prudent and effective step is to simply get the federal government out of the business of redistributing income and let state and local governments decide how best to deal with the issue.

This federalism-based approach has several advantages.

  1. Since redistributing income is not listed as an enumerated power, ending Washington’s role would be consistent with the Constitution.
  2. This federalism model already has been successfully tested with welfare reform in the 1990s and it also is the core feature of proposals to block grant Medicaid.
  3. A state-based model is far more likely to result in the degree of experimentation, diversity, and innovation needed to discover how best to actually promote self sufficiency.

By the way, this federalist system may begin with block grants from the federal government (i.e., transfers of cash to state and local governments), but the ultimate goal should be to phase out such subsidies so that state and local governments are responsible for choosing how to raise funds and how to allocate them.

And once welfare is truly a responsibility of state and local governments, we have good evidence that this will lead to better policy.

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