Posts Tagged ‘Poverty’

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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Two days ago, I contrasted the views of Pope Francis and Walter Williams about capitalism and morality.

I explained that Walter had the upper hand because free markets are a positive-sum game based on voluntary exchange while redistribution (at best) is a zero-sum game based on coercion.

That’s the theoretical argument. Now let’s look at the empirical data, specifically focusing on which approach is best for the less fortunate.

Thomas Sowell, the great economist at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, is not impressed by the Pope’s analysis. Here some of what Prof. Sowell wrote for Investor’s Business Daily.

Pope Francis has created political controversy…by blaming capitalism for many of the problems of the poor. …putting aside religious or philosophical questions, we have more than two centuries of historical evidence… Any serious look at the history of human beings over the millennia shows that the species began in poverty. It is not poverty, but prosperity, that needs explaining. …which has a better track record of helping the less fortunate — fighting for a bigger slice of the economic pie, or producing a bigger pie? …the official poverty level in the U.S. is the upper middle class in Mexico. The much criticized market economy of the U.S. has done far more for the poor than the ideology of the left. Pope Francis’ own native Argentina was once among the leading economies of the world, before it was ruined by the kind of ideological notions he is now promoting around the world.

I briefly discussed the failure of the Peronist Argentinian model last month, but let’s take a closer look at Professor Sowell’s assertions about the U.S. and Argentina.

My colleague at the Cato Institute, Marian Tupy, has put together a great fact-filled website called Human Progress, and it allows users to access all sorts of databases to produce their own charts and tables.

And here’s what the data shows about per-capita economic output in Argentina and the United States.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the supposedly more compassionate system in Argentina.

As you can see from this table, Argentina actually was slightly richer than the U.S. back in 1896. But that nation’s shift to statism, particularly after World War II, hindered Argentina’s growth rates.

And seemingly modest differences in growth, compounded over decades, have a huge impact on living standards for ordinary people (i.e., inflation-adjusted GDP per person climbing nearly $27,000 in the U.S. vs an increase of less than $6,700 in Argentina).

By the way, this is not an endorsement of America’s economic policy. We have far too much statism in the United States.

But compared to Argentina, which generally has ranked in the bottom quartile for economic freedom, the United States has a more market-friendly track record.

To help make the bigger point about the importance of economic liberty, let’s now compare the United States with a jurisdiction that consistently has been ranked as the world’s freest economy.

Look at changes in economic output in America and Hong Kong from 1950 to the present. As you can see, Hong Kong started the period as a very poor jurisdiction, with per-capita output only about one-fourth of American levels.

But thanks to better policy, which led to faster growth compounding over several decades, Hong Kong has now caught up to the United States.

What’s most remarkable, if you look at the table, is that per-capita output over the past 65 years has soared by more than 1,275 percent in Hong Kong.

Needless to say, if the U.S. is out-performing Argentina and Hong Kong is out-performing the U.S., then a comparison of Hong Kong and Argentina would yield ever starker results.

I actually did something like that back in 2011 and the results further underscore that there’s a very powerful relationship between economic policy and economic performance.

Which brings us back to the fundamental issue of what system is best for the less fortunate in society?

I suppose that’s a judgement call, but poor people obviously have higher incomes and more opportunity when there’s strong economic growth.

But as Margaret Thatcher famously explained, some people are so consumed by disdain for success that they’re willing to accept more suffering for poor people if they can simultaneously lower the incomes of rich people.

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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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The biggest mistake of well-meaning leftists is that they place too much value on good intentions and don’t seem to care nearly as much about good results.

Pope Francis is an example of this unfortunate tendency. His concern for the poor presumably is genuine, but he puts ideology above evidence when he argues against capitalism and in favor of coercive government.

Here are some passages from a CNN report on the Pope’s bias.

Pope Francis makes his first official visit to the United States this week. There’s a lot of angst about what he might say, especially when he addresses Congress Thursday morning. …He’ll probably discuss American capitalism’s flaws, a theme he has hit on since the 1990s. Pope Francis wrote a book in 1998 with an entire chapter focused on “the limits of capitalism.” …Francis argued that…capitalism lacks morals and promotes selfish behavior. …He has been especially critical of how capitalism has increased inequality… He’s tweeted: “inequality is the root of all evil.” …he’s a major critic of greed and excessive wealth. …”Capitalism has been the cause of many sufferings…”

Wow, I almost don’t know how to respond. So many bad ideas crammed in so few words.

If you want to know why Pope Francis is wrong about capitalism and human well-being, these videos narrated by Don Boudreaux and Deirdre McCloskey will explain how free markets have generated unimaginable prosperity for ordinary people.

But the Pope isn’t just wrong on facts. He’s also wrong on morality. This video by Walter Williams explains why voluntary exchange in a free-market system is far more ethical than a regime based on government coercion.

Very well stated. And I especially like how Walter explains that markets are a positive-sum game, whereas government-coerced redistribution is (at best) a zero-sum game.

Professor Williams wasn’t specifically seeking to counter the muddled economic views of Pope Francis, but others have taken up that challenge.

Writing for the Washington Post, George Will specifically addresses the Pope’s moral preening.

Pope Francis embodies sanctity but comes trailing clouds of sanctimony. With a convert’s indiscriminate zeal, he embraces ideas impeccably fashionable, demonstrably false and deeply reactionary. They would devastate the poor on whose behalf he purports to speak… Francis deplores “compulsive consumerism,” a sin to which the 1.3 billion persons without even electricity can only aspire.

He specifically explains that people with genuine concern for the poor should celebrate industrialization and utilization of natural resources.

Poverty has probably decreased more in the past two centuries than in the preceding three millennia because of industrialization powered by fossil fuels. Only economic growth has ever produced broad amelioration of poverty, and since growth began in the late 18th century, it has depended on such fuels. …The capitalist commerce that Francis disdains is the reason the portion of the planet’s population living in “absolute poverty” ($1.25 a day) declined from 53 percent to 17 percent in three decades after 1981.

So why doesn’t Pope Francis understand economics?

Perhaps because he learned the wrong lesson from his nation’s disastrous experiment with an especially corrupt and cronyist version of statism.

Francis grew up around the rancid political culture of Peronist populism, the sterile redistributionism that has reduced his Argentina from the world’s 14th highest per-capita gross domestic product in 1900 to 63rd today. Francis’s agenda for the planet — “global regulatory norms” — would globalize Argentina’s downward mobility.

Amen (no pun intended).

George Will is right that Argentina is not a good role model.

And he’s even more right about the dangers of “global norms” that inevitably would pressure all nations to impose equally bad levels of taxation and regulation.

Returning to the economic views of Pope Francis, the BBC asked for my thoughts back in 2013 and everything I said still applies today.

P.S. Let’s close by taking a look at a few examples of how the world is getting better thanks to capitalism.

We’ll start with an example of how China’s modest shift toward markets has generated huge reductions in poverty (h/t: Cato Institute).

Now let’s look at how a wealthier society is also a safer society (h/t: David Frum).

Or how about this remarkable measure of higher living standards (h/t: Mark Perry).

Here’s an amazing chart showing how something as basic as light used to be a luxury good but now is astoundingly inexpensive for the masses (h/t: Max Roser).

These are just a few random examples of how free markets, when not overly stifled by government, can produce amazing things for ordinary people.

We may not notice the results from one year to the next, but the results are remarkable when we examine data over longer periods of time.

And if our specific goal is to help the poor, there’s no question that economic growth is far more effective than government dependency.

Which is why I’ve explained that it’s better to be a poor person in a capitalist jurisdiction.

I’d much rather be a poor person in a jurisdiction such as Hong Kong or Singapore rather than in a “compassionate” country such as France. France might give me lots of handouts, but I’d remain poor. In a free-market society, by contrast, I could climb out of poverty.

P.P.S. Methinks Pope Francis would benefit from a discussion with Libertarian Jesus.

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As a libertarian, I sometimes make the moral argument for small government. If it’s wrong to steal other people’s income or property, then shouldn’t it also be wrong to use the coercive power of government to take their income or property?

Defenders of the welfare state respond by saying it’s “the will of the people,” but the libertarian counter-response is to point out that 51 percent of the people shouldn’t be allowed to pillage 49 percent of the people.

Indeed, as Walter Williams has cogently explained, that’s why America’s Founding Fathers were such strong opponents of what they viewed as “untrammeled majoritarianism.”

But since I realize that some people aren’t persuaded by philosophical arguments, much of my work focuses on the practical or utilitarian case for small government.

That’s why I repeatedly show how market-oriented jurisdictions out-perform statist nations.

I’ve even challenged my left-wing friends to come up with a single example of a successful big-government economy.

Needless to say, the only response is the sound of chirping crickets.

Now let’s add one more piece of evidence to our arsenal. I’ve already shared lots of data and information when making the case that Obama’s big-government policies have not worked, but, in the spirit of Mae West, there’s no such thing as too much proof that statism doesn’t work.

Especially when the evidence comes from the Obama Administration!

Here are two damning charts from a just-released Census Bureau report on income and poverty in the United States.

The first chart shows that median household income, adjusted for inflation, is nearly $1300 lower today than it was when Obama took office.

That’s a horrible outcome, particularly since the recession ended back in the summer of 2009.

By the way, I agree with critics who say that the household income data is a less-than-ideal measure of prosperity. That being said, it’s still a benchmark that allows us to see how well the economy does in some periods compared to others.

And if you look at the above chart, you clearly can see that households obviously did comparatively well during the market-oriented Reagan and Clinton eras.

Now let’s look at some data that should be very compelling for leftists who claim to be especially concerned about the less fortunate. Here are the latest Census Bureau numbers on the number of people living in poverty as well as the overall poverty rate.

As you can see, there’s been no progress during the Obama years, even if you absolve him of any blame for the deteriorating numbers caused by the recession.

By the way, I can’t resist pointing out that this chart shows how the poverty rate was declining until the so-called War on Poverty started in the mid-1960s.

And if you can click here to learn more about how bad government policies have trapped people in poverty. And if you’re interested in several hundred years of data on poverty and government policy, click here.

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Back in 2013, my colleagues at the Cato Institute, Michael Tanner and Charles Hughes, released a study looking at the value of welfare programs in various states.

The most shocking finding was that the overall package of welfare benefits was greater than the median salary in eight states!

And more than 80 percent of the median salary in half the states.

That sounds like a hammock, not a safety net. No wonder taxpayers feel like they’re getting ripped off.

This system has been bad for taxpayers and bad for poor people.

Now Mike and Charles have a new study that looks at excessive welfare handouts in Europe. They start with an elementary observation about how people can be trapped in dependency when government benefits are too high.

If welfare benefits become too generous, they can create a significant incentive that encourages recipients to remain “on the dole” rather than to seek employment. Benefits in European Union (EU) countries vary widely, but in many of them, benefits are high relative to what an individual could expect to earn from a low-wage or entry-level job.

And he highlights some of his main finding.

■ Welfare benefits in nine EU countries exceeded €15,000 ($18,200) per year. In six countries, benefits exceeded €20,000 ($24,300). Denmark offers the most generous benefit package, valued at €31,709 ($38,558).

■ In nine countries, welfare benefits exceeded the minimum wage in that country.

■ Benefits in 11 countries exceeded half of the net income for someone earning the average wage in that country, and in 6 countries it exceeded 60 percent of the net average wage income

Since poor people can be just as rational as rich people, think about the perverse incentive structure this creates. If you work, you give up leisure time and expose yourself to all sorts of additional costs, such as transportation, childcare, and taxes.

So why endure those headaches when you can relax on the dole?

Let’s look at some charts from the study. We’ll start with one on the overall fiscal burden of the welfare state.

As you can see, nations in Northern Europe generally have greater levels of income redistribution, measured as a share of GDP.

Very depressing numbers, particularly when you consider that European nations used to have small governments with very little redistribution.

But this data only tells us about the overall burden on taxpayers. It doesn’t give us much information about the incentives of poor people.

So now let’s look at a chart showing potential welfare benefits for a single parent with two children.

Wow, Denmark must be a paradise for slackers. No wonder “Lazy Robert” is so happy.

Though you have to wonder how long the system can survive. The number of people producing wealth has been stagnant while the number of people riding in the “party boat” has been climbing.

Sooner or alter, those trend lines will cause big problems.

You’ll notice that the United States also is included in the above chart and that handouts in America are not that different than they are on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Indeed, the value of redistribution programs in the United States is greater than what’s provided in France and only slightly behind the value of such programs in Sweden.

The numbers are even more remarkable when you look at American states compared to European nations.

Wow, Lazy Robert should move to Hawaii!

But it’s not just Hawaii. Many other states, mostly from the northeast (and California of course), also provide excessive benefits.

No wonder a record number of Americans are trapped in poverty.

Let’s now shift gears and look at a very interesting finding from the Cato study. Mike and Charles uncovered an inverse relationship between handouts and labor regulations.

In looking at the relationship between welfare and work, one additional factor should be considered. There appears to be an inverse relationship between the generosity of welfare benefits and the rigidity of labor-market regulations. That is, those countries with high benefits tend to have more flexible labor markets, and vice versa. …Nordic countries, in addition to Germany, the Netherlands, and a few others, have chosen to pursue what is often referred to as the “Nordic,” “Danish,” or “flexicurity” model. That version of the welfare state combines a largely deregulated labor market, one that makes it easier to hire and fire workers, with a generous safety net to cushion workers from the consequences of those policies. …In contrast, in much of southern Europe, countries such as Italy, Portugal, and Spain have smaller safety nets but much more tightly regulated labor markets. They effectively shift much of the social cost to employers.

While these nations obviously have different approaches, the bottom line is still similar.

…in southern Europe, the welfare benefits may not deter work to the same extent, but finding a job may be more difficult. Then again, in countries with flexicurity, it might be easier to find a job, but benefits and effective marginal tax rates are high enough to discourage workers from doing so. The result in both models is that workers are more likely to remain on welfare and out of work for longer than they otherwise would.

P.S. I’m actually in Hawaii as I’m writing this, so the results from the last chart got me thinking. Hawaii is one of the worst states in the Moocher Index and it does have relatively high welfare benefits, so you won’t be shocked to learn there’s a very high tax burden. But a surprisingly small share of the population utilizes food stamps, and the number of welfare bureaucrats is amazingly low.

P.P.S. Left-wing international bureaucracies such as the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development fabricate deliberately dishonest numbers when advocating more welfare spending in the United States. But we’d be much better off if we learned from the success of welfare reform in the 1990s and got the federal government out of the business of income redistribution.

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Like Sisyphus pushing the rock up a hill, I keep trying to convince my leftist friends that growth is the best way to help the poor. I routinely share new evidence and provide real-world data in hopes that they will realize that good results are more important than good intentions.

In a triumph of hope over experience, let’s see once again if we can get the boulder to the top of the hill.

James Piereson of the Manhattan Institute has a superb article in Commentary about “The Redistribution Fallacy.” Here are some passages, starting with an observation that American voters are very skeptical about using government coercion to equalize incomes.

Public-opinion polls over the years have consistently shown that voters overwhelmingly reject programs of redistribution in favor of policies designed to promote overall economic growth and job creation. …While voters are worried about inequality, they are far more skeptical of the capacity of governments to do anything about it without making matters worse for everyone. …Leaving aside the morality of redistribution, the progressive case is based upon a significant fallacy. It assumes that the U.S. government is actually capable of redistributing income from the wealthy to the poor. …Whatever one may think of inequality, redistributive fiscal policies are unlikely to do much to reduce it, a point that the voters seem instinctively to understand.

Piereson points out that big changes in tax policy don’t have much impact, presumably because upper-income taxpayers take sensible and easy steps to protect themselves when they’re targeted by government, but they’re willing to earn and report a lot more income when they’re not being persecuted.

…there are perfectly obvious reasons on both the tax and the spending side as to why redistribution does not succeed in the American system—and probably cannot be made to succeed. …The highest marginal income-tax rate oscillated up and down throughout the 1979–2011 period. It began in 1979 at 70 percent during the Carter presidency. It fell first to 50 and then to 28 percent in the Reagan and Bush years. It rose to 39.6 percent in the 1990s under the Clinton presidency, and went down again to 35 percent from 2003 to 2010. It is now back up to 39.6 percent. The highest rate on capital gains moved within a narrower band, beginning at 28 percent in 1979 and falling as low as 15 percent from 2005 to 2011. The highest rate is currently 23.8 percent. Over this period, regardless of the tax rates, the top 1 percent of the income distribution lost between 1 and 2 percent of the income share after taxes were levied. …At the other end, the poorest quintiles gained almost nothing (about 1 percent on average) in income shares due to cash and in-kind transfers from government. In 2011, for example, the poorest 20 percent of households received 5 percent of (pre-tax) national income, and 6 percent of the after-tax income.

Moreover, it’s laughably inaccurate to claim that the United States doesn’t have a progressive tax system.

Many in the redistribution camp attribute this pattern to a lack of progressivity in the U.S. income-tax system; a higher rate of taxation on the wealthy should solve it, they think. …A 2008 study published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that the United States had the most progressive income-tax system among all 24 OECD countries measured in terms of the share of the tax burden paid by the wealthiest households. …The top 20 percent of earners paid 93 percent of the federal income taxes in 2010 even though they claimed 52 percent of before-tax income. Meanwhile, the bottom 40 percent paid zero net income taxes—zero. For all practical purposes, those in the highest brackets already bear the overwhelming burden of federal income tax, while those below the median income have been taken out of the income-tax system altogether.

Indeed, it’s worth noting that the reason that government is much bigger in Europe is not because they tax the rich more, but rather because they have higher burdens on low- and moderate-income taxpayers (largely because of the value-added tax).

Simply stated, there aren’t enough rich people to finance a giant welfare state, particularly when they can easily choose to avoid confiscatory tax levels.

And this explains why honest American leftists occasionally will admit that they’re real goal is higher taxes on the middle class. That’s where the money is.

But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to Piereson’s article.

He also explains that redistribution doesn’t work on the spending side of the fiscal ledger.

Turning to the spending side of fiscal policy, we encounter a murkier situation because of the sheer number and complexity of federal spending programs. The House of Representatives Budget Committee estimated in 2012 that the federal government spent nearly $800 billion on 92 separate anti-poverty programs that provided cash assistance, medical care, housing assistance, food stamps, and tax credits to the poor and near-poor. …most of the money goes not to poor or near-poor households but to providers of services. The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan once tartly described this as “feeding the horses to feed the sparrows.” This country pays exorbitant fees to middle-class and upper-middle-class providers to deliver services to the poor. …This is one reason that five of the seven wealthiest counties in the nation are on the outskirts of Washington D.C. and that the average income for the District of Columbia’s top 5 percent of households exceeds $500,000, the highest among major American cities.

Gee, I’m shocked to learn that big government is a racket that lines the pockets of Washington insiders.

So what’s the bottom line?

The federal government is an effective engine for dispensing patronage, encouraging rent-seeking, and circulating money to important voting blocs and well-connected constituencies. It is not an effective engine for the redistribution of income. …those worried about inequality should abandon the failed cause of redistribution and turn their attention instead to broad-based economic growth as the only practical remedy for the sagging incomes of too many Americans.


If you want an example of how statism hurts the less fortunate, look at what’s happened to Venezuela.

It used to be one of the richest nations in Latin America, but bad policies in recent decades have resulted in stagnation and deprivation.

Now, Venezuela is a basket case.

It’s so bad that even establishment media outlets can’t help but notice, as illustrated by this passage from an article in The Economist.

Though the poor initially benefited from “Bolivarian socialism”, economic mismanagement has made them poorer.

In other words, Venezuela is a real-world example of the famous parables about socialism in the classroom and buying beer with class-warfare taxation. Demagogic politicians don’t understand (or don’t care) that when you punish production and reward sloth, you get less of the former and more of the latter.

Which brings me back to Piereson’s concluding points. If you care about the poor, strive for more economic growth with policies based on free markets and small government.

Nations that follow that approach vastly out-perform the countries that choose statism.

That’s looking at the big picture. Now let’s look at an example that confirms Piereson’s point about redistribution programs mostly benefiting interest groups rather than poor people.

John Graham of the Independent Institute has a very sobering column about Medicaid in the Providence Journal. It turns out that record amounts of spending for the program doesn’t yield much benefit for poor people.

Medicaid is the largest means-tested welfare program in the United States.  …new research suggests that only 20 to 40 cents of each Medicaid dollar improves recipients’ welfare. …How much does Medicaid increase recipients’ actual welfare? In other words: Does $100 of Medicaid spending increase the dependent’s well-being by $100? More? Less? …recipients’ behavior indicates they only valued their benefits at one-fifth to two-fifths of the money spent is a serious indictment of the program.

So who does benefit from the program’s ever-growing fiscal burden?

Medicaid spending is driven by providers, especially hospitals, which have relentless lobbying operations. …The study group found that 60 percent of Medicaid spending comprises transfers to such providers

But here’s the most amazing conclusion from this new research.

Medicaid enrollment did not improve mortality or any physical health measure.

The only logical conclusion is that we need to reform Medicaid. Heck, let’s fix the entire mess created by the Washington-created welfare state.

It’s been bad for taxpayers and bad for poor people.

P.S. If you want to see sloppy and biased analysis (paid for with your tax dollars), take a look at efforts to rationalize that redistribution is good for growth from the International Monetary Fund and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

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