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Posts Tagged ‘Redistribution’

I’ve written over and over again that the federal government’s so-called War on Poverty has been a disaster.

It’s been bad news for taxpayers, of course, but it’s also been bad news for poor people since they get trapped in dependency.

So what’s the alternative? Well, we actually can learn a lot from history.

Let’s start on the other side of the Atlantic. Professor Tyler Cowen of George Mason University has a fascinating video (which is part of a must-watch series) looking at the English debate in the 1830s on how best to deal with poverty.

Now let’s cross the ocean and look at the American experience.

Professor Thomas West of Hillsdale College has researched welfare policies in the early days of the United States.

Here are some of his key findings.

…government-funded welfare, not to mention generous private charity, has existed throughout American history. …The real difference between the Founders’ welfare policies and today’s is over how, not whether, government should help those in need.

Government was involved, but only at the local level, and assistance was a two-way street.

From the earliest colonial days, local governments took responsibility for their poor. However, able-bodied men and women generally were not supported by the taxpayers unless they worked. They would sometimes be placed in group homes that provided them with food and shelter in exchange for labor. Only those who were too young, old, weak, or sick and who had no friends or family to help them were taken care of in idleness.

Here’s more.

Welfare is kept local so that the administrators of the program will know the actual situations of the persons who ask for help. This will prevent abuses and freeloading. …A distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor is carefully observed. Able-bodied vagabonds get help, but they are required to work in institutions where they will be disciplined. Children and the disabled, on the other hand, are provided for, not lavishly but without public shame. …Poor laws to support individual cases of urgent need were not intended to go beyond a minimal safety net. Benefit levels were low.

Interestingly, Professor West writes about Benjamin Franklin’s low opinion of England’s welfare system (as it existed before the 1830s, obviously), which was much more generous.

Here’s some of what Franklin wrote, as cited by West.

I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion of the means. I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. In my youth I travelled much, and I observed in different countries, that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.

This was not an unusual perspective.

Franklin’s understanding of the welfare paradox—that aid to the poor must be managed carefully lest it promote indolence and therefore poverty—was shared by most Americans who wrote about and administered poverty programs until the end of the 19th century. …policies were intended to help the poor in ways that did not violate the rights of taxpayers or promote irresponsible behavior.

Thomas Jefferson definitely agreed, as seen in this quote included in Professor West’s analysis.

To take from one, because it is thought his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers, have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, the guarantee to everyone the free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it.

If you remember the discussion of “indoor” and “outdoor” relief from the video about the English welfare system, you won’t be surprised to learn similar issues were present in the United States.

As the poor population grew, many concluded that “outdoor relief” was leading people to look on welfare as an entitlement and creating a class of permanent dependents. Consequently, the emphasis soon shifted to “indoor relief”—almshouses and workhouses.

Professor West also cites the strong role of private charity, which also was based on tough-love compassion.

After the Revolution and throughout the 19th century, hospitals for the poor, educational institutions, YMCAs, and Salvation Army branches were established in growing numbers all over America by public-spirited citizens. Like the public workhouses, these private charities distinguished between deserving and undeserving poor. Good character, it was thought, would enable most people to become self-sufficient. These agencies tried to build the character of their recipients through education, moral suasion, religious instruction, and work.

Now let’s see what West says about the effectiveness of the tough-love approach from America’s past with the entitlement approach used today.

If we rank poverty and welfare policies in terms of quantity of money and material goods given to people who are poor, then today’s policies are far more effective than the Founders’. Benefit levels are much higher, and far more people are eligible for support. …However, if poverty and welfare policies are judged by their effectiveness in providing for the minimal needs of the poor while dramatically reducing poverty in a society over time, then America before 1965 could be said to have had the most successful welfare policy in world history. By the same benchmark, post-1965 poverty programs have failed.

In other words, if the goal is to make people comfortable in dependency, the current system is a big success.

But if the goal is self reliance and reduced poverty, than the current system is a terrible failure.

Professor West has some great data on how a combination of long-run growth and a sensible welfare system combined to dramatically reduce destitution between the nation’s founding and the 1960s.

Two centuries ago, most Americans—at least 90 percent—were desperately poor by today’s standards. Most houses were small, ill-constructed, and poorly heated and insulated. Based on federal family income estimates, 59 percent of Americans lived in poverty as late as 1929, before the Great Depression. In 1947, the government reported that 32 percent of Americans were poor. 

This is fascinating and valuable information. At least for those of us with a wonky interest in public policy.

Back in 2010, I shared a chart based on far more limited data to show the poverty rate consistently falling after World War II.

But only up to a point. Once the federal government declared War on Poverty in the mid-1960s, we stopped making progress.

Now, based on Professor West’s data, I can create a chart going back to 1815.

I arbitrarily connected the data points with straight lines for lack of any other obvious alternative, but that’s not important. The key point of the graph is to see that the level of poverty dramatically before Washington got involved.

Professor West puts 2 and 2 together and gets 4.

…before the huge growth in government spending on poverty programs, poverty was declining rapidly in America. After the new programs were fully implemented, the poverty rate stopped declining.

Let’s begin to wrap up our discussion.

West points out that Benjamin Franklin’s criticisms of the English welfare system apply even more so to the mess we have in America today.

And this is a very costly mistake.

The incentive structure of the modern welfare state is similar to the one that Franklin condemned in old England, except that ours is more generous and more tolerant of single motherhood. Since 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson inaugurated the modern War on Poverty, total annual government welfare spending has grown from less than $9 billion (1.3 percent of gross domestic product) to $324 billion (5 percent of GDP) in 1993 to $927 billion (6 percent of GDP) in 2011. Between 1965 and 2013, the government spent $22 trillion (adjusted for inflation) on means-tested welfare programs—more than three times the costs of all military wars in the history of the United States. …These figures do not take into account state, county, and municipal benefits. Nor do they take into account the massive use of Social Security Disability as a de facto welfare program (as of 2005, 4.1 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 were enrolled).

We had successful welfare reform in the 1990s, to be sure, but it dealt with just one program.

The overall trend, as discussed two days ago, is ever-growing levels of dependency.

The basic problem—that government makes it affordable for women to bear and raise children without husbands while living independently in households of their own—is still there. …High benefit levels and irresponsible attitudes toward sex and marriage create a world in which many children have few or no ties to their fathers; in which mothers, increasingly unmarried, are more often abused and exploited; and in which many men join gangs and take up crime as a way of life. …The contemporary outlook on welfare has both propelled the family’s disintegration and promoted vast dependence. …antipoverty programs can easily have a corrupting effect if they are not set up in a way that promotes rather than breaks down the morality of self-restraint and self-assertion that is a necessary foundation of what Jefferson called “temperate liberty.”

I guess what we have now in America is intemperate dependence.

Hmmm, maybe the solution is to go back to the system that worked. And that means getting Washington out of the business of income redistribution.

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Based on a new report from the Congressional Budget Office, I wrote two weeks ago about America’s dismal long-run fiscal outlook. Simply stated, we face a Greek-style fiscal future because of changing demographics and poorly designed entitlement programs.

But I was just looking at big-picture fiscal aggregates.

And while that was discouraging, it gets downright depressing when you look behind the numbers and consider how a growing share of Americans are getting lured into government dependency.

Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute has a very grim analysis on the growth of entitlement dependency in the United States.

The American welfare state today transfers over 14% of the nation’s GDP to the recipients of its many programs, and over a third of the population now accepts “need-based” benefits from the government. This is not the America that Tocqueville encountered.

It wasn’t always this way.

The article looks at the history of the welfare state in America.

 In 1961, at the start of the Kennedy Administration, total government entitlement transfers to individual recipients accounted for a little less than 5% of GDP, as opposed to 2.5% of GDP in 1931 just before the New Deal. In 1963 — the year of Kennedy’s assassination — these entitlement transfers accounted for about 6% of total personal income.

But things began to deteriorate under LBJ.

During the 1960s, …President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” (declared in 1964) and his “Great Society” pledge of the same year ushered in a new era for America, in which Washington finally commenced in earnest the construction of a massive welfare state. … Americans could claim, and obtain, an increasing trove of economic benefits from the government simply by dint of being a citizen; they were now incontestably entitled under law to some measure of transferred public bounty, thanks to our new “entitlement state.”

And guess what? Once we started rewarding dependency, more and more people decided they were entitled.

Over the half-century between 1963 and 2013, entitlement transfers were the fastest growing source of personal income in America — expanding at twice the rate for real per capita personal income from all other sources, in fact. Relentless, exponential growth of entitlement payments recast the American family budget over the course of just two generations. In 1963, these transfers accounted for less than one out of every 15 dollars of overall personal income; by 2013, they accounted for more than one dollar out of every six. The explosive growth of entitlement outlays, of course, was accompanied by a corresponding surge in the number of Americans who would routinely apply for, and accept, such government benefits.

And how many people have been lured into government dependency? A lot, and mostly because of welfare spending rather than age-related social insurance programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

…the government did not actually begin systematically tracking the demographics of America’s “program participation” until a generation ago. Such data as are available, however, depict a sea change over the past 30 years. …By 2012, the most recent year for such figures at this writing, Census Bureau estimates indicated that more than 150 million Americans, or a little more than 49% of the population, lived in households that received at least one entitlement benefit….Between 1983 and 2012, by Census Bureau estimates, the percentage of Americans “participating” in entitlement programs jumped by nearly 20 percentage points….Less than one-fifth of that 20-percentage-point jump can be attributed to increased reliance on these two “old age” programs. Overwhelmingly, the growth in claimants of entitlement benefits has stemmed from an extraordinary rise in “means-tested” entitlements.

Ugh. I’ve previously written that getting something from the government doesn’t automatically turn somebody into a moocher or a deadbeat.

Nonetheless, it can’t be good news that 49 percent of U.S. households are on the receiving end for goodies from Uncle Sam.

Here’s a table from his article that should frighten anyone who thinks work and self-reliance are worthwhile values.

There’s lot of information, so I recommend just focusing on the numbers in parentheses in the first two columns. Those show how dependency is increasing by significant amounts for many programs.

Eberstadt highlights some of the worst numbers, most notably the huge growth in food stamps and Medicaid dependency.

…the rolls of claimants receiving food stamps (a program that was officially rebranded the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, in 2008 because of the stigma the phrase had acquired) jumped from 19 million to 51 million. By 2012 almost one American in six lived in a home enrolled in the SNAP program. The ranks of Medicaid, the means-tested national health-care program, increased by over 65 million between 1983 and 2012, and now include over one in four Americans. …Between 1983 and 2012, the number of Americans in households receiving Federal SSI more than sextupled; by 2012, over 20 million people were counted as dependents of the program.

As bad as these numbers are, the most worrisome part of the article is when Eberstadt writes about the erosion of America’s cultural capital.

Asking for, and accepting, purportedly need-based government welfare benefits has become a fact of life for a significant and still growing minority of our population: Every decade, a higher proportion of Americans appear to be habituated to the practice. … nearly half of all children under 18 years of age received means-tested benefits (or lived in homes that did). For this rising cohort of young Americans, reliance on public, need-based entitlement programs is already the norm — here and now. It risks belaboring the obvious to observe that today’s real existing American entitlement state, and the habits — including habits of mind — that it engenders, do not coexist easily with the values and principles, or with the traditions, culture, and styles of life, subsumed under the shorthand of “American exceptionalism.”

And the erosion of cultural capital is very difficult to reverse, thanks in large part to the welfare-aided erosion of traditional families and falling levels of work among males.

The corrosive nature of mass dependence on entitlements is evident from the nature of the pathologies so closely associated with its spread. Two of the most pernicious of them are so tightly intertwined as to be inseparable: the breakdown of the pre-existing American family structure and the dramatic decrease in participation in work among working-age men. …the rise of long-term entitlement dependence — with the concomitant “mainstreaming” of inter-generational welfare dependence — self-evidently delivers a heavy blow.

Since this has been an utterly depressing analysis so far, let’s close with a vaguely optimistic look at the future.

While it may not be easy to reverse the erosion of cultural capital, it is simple (at least in theory) to reverse bad policies.

All we need to do is enact genuine entitlement reform and devolve all means-tested redistribution spending to the states.

P.S. This is some great work by AEI, which follows on the stellar analysis that organization recently produced on income inequality. Makes me almost want to forgot that AEI put together a somewhat disappointing fiscal plan.

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One would think that Europeans might finally be realizing that an ever-growing welfare state and an ever-rising tax burden are a form of economic suicide.

The most obvious bit of evidence is to look at what’s happening in Greece. Simply stated, public policy for too long has punished workers and producers while rewarding looters and moochers. The result is economic collapse, bailouts, and the destruction of cultural capital.

But Greece is just the tip of the iceberg. Many other European nations are heading in the same direction and it shows up in the economic data. Living standards are already considerably lower than they are in the United States. Yet instead of the “convergence” that’s assumed in conventional economic theory, the Europeans are falling further behind instead of catching up.

There are some officials sounding the alarm.

In a column for the Brussels Times, Philippe Legrain, the former economic adviser to the President of the European Commission, has a glum assessment of the European Union.

In 2007, the EU accounted for 31 per cent of the world economy, measured at market prices. This year, it will account for only 22 per cent, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Eight years ago, the EU’s economy was a fifth bigger than the US’s; this year it is set to be smaller than America’s. …Continued economic decline seems inevitable.

But it seems that the folks who recognize that there is a problem are greatly out-numbered by those who want to make the problem worse.

For instance, one would think that any sentient adult would understand that the overall burden of government spending in Europe is a problem, particularly outlays for redistribution programs that undermine incentives for productive behavior.

Yet, as reported by the EU Observer, some statists at the European Commission want to mandate the amounts of redistribution in member nations.

The European Commission is to push for minimum standards on social protection across member states… Employment commissioner Marianne Thyssen Tuesday (9 June) said she wants to see minimum unemployment benefits, a minimum income, access to child care, and access to basic health care in all 28 countries. …The commission will look into whether “enough people are covered in member states when they have an unemployment problem; how long are they protected. What is the level of the unemployment benefit in comparison with the former wage they earned,” said Thyssen. …”The aim is to have an upper convergence…”

This is a horrible idea. It’s basically designed to impose a rule that forces nations to be more like France and Greece.

Instead of competition, innovation, and diversity, Europe would move even further in the direction of one-size-fits-all centralization.

Though I give her credit for admitting that the purpose of harmonization is to force more spending, what she calls “upper convergence.” So we can add Ms. Thyssen to our list of honest statists.

And speaking of centralization, some politicians want to go beyond mandates and harmonization and also have EU-wide taxes and spending.

Here are some of the details from a report in the U.K.-based Guardian.

German and French politicians are calling for a…eurozone treasury equipped with a eurozone finance chief, single budget, tax-raising powers, pooled debt liabilities, a common monetary fund, and separate organisation and representation within the European parliament. …They call for the setting up of “an embryo euro area budget”, “a fiscal capacity over and above national budgets”, and harmonised corporate taxes across the bloc. The eurozone would be able to borrow on the markets against its budget, which would be financed from a kind of Tobin tax on financial transactions and also from part of the revenue from the new business tax regime.

By the way, this initiative to impose another layer of taxes and spending in Europe isn’t being advocated by irrelevant back-bench politicians. It’s being pushed by Germany’s Vice Chancellor and France’s Economy Minister!

Thankfully, not everyone in Europe is economically insane. Syed Kamall, a member of the European Parliament form the U.K.’s Conservative Party, is unimpressed with this vision of greater centralization, harmonization, and bureaucratization.

Here’s some of what he wrote in a column for the EU Observer.

The socialist dream that these two politicians propose would soon turn into a nightmare not just for the Eurozone, but for the entire EU. …Their socialist vision of harmonised taxation and more social policies sounds utopian on paper but it fails to accept a basic fact: that Europe is not the world, and Europe cannot close itself off from the world. …After several decades of centralisation in the EU, we have seen the results: …a failure to keep up with growing economic competitiveness in many parts of the world. …Specific proposals such as harmonised corporate taxes are nothing new from the socialists, but they would reduce European competitiveness. …With greater harmonisation Europe’s tax rate would only be as low as the highest-taxing member. …

Syed’s point about Europe not being the world is especially relevant because the damage of one-size-fits-all centralization manifests itself much faster when jobs and capital can simply migrate to other jurisdictions.

And while the Europeans are trying to undermine the competitiveness of other nations with various tax harmonization schemes, that’s not going to arrest Europe’s decline.

Simply stated, Europe is imposing bad policy internally at a much faster rate than it can impose bad policy externally.

P.S. Let’s close with some humor sent to me by the Princess of the Levant.

It features the libertarian character from Parks and Recreation.

And I even found the YouTube clip of this scene.

Which is definitely worth watching because of how Swanson explains the tax system.

I particularly like the part about the capital gains tax. It’s a good way of illustrating double taxation.

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Maybe the warm weather is affecting my judgement, but I’m finding myself in the odd position of admiring some folks on the left for their honesty.

A few days ago, for instance, I (sort of) applauded Matthew Yglesias for openly admitting that punitive tax rates would put us on the downward-sloping portion of the Laffer Curve.

He still favors such a policy, which is very bizarre, but at least his approach is much more honest than other statists who want us to believe that very high tax rates generate more revenue.

Today, I’m going to indirectly give kudos to another leftist.

Writing for the Washington Post, Katrina vanden Heuvel openly argues that the meaning of freedom should be changed. Here’s some of her argument, and we’ll start with her reasonably fair description of how freedom currently is interpreted.

For conservatives, freedom is centered in markets, free from government interference. …Government is the threat; the best thing it can do is to get out of the way. …freedom entails privatization, deregulation, limiting government’s reach and capacity.

Needless to say, I agree with this definition. After all, isn’t freedom just another way of saying “the absence of coercive constraint on the individual?

Heck, this is why I’m a libertarian. Sure, I like the fact that liberty produces more prosperity, but my main goal it to eliminate needless government coercion.

But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to her column. She complains that folks on the left have acquiesced to this traditional conception of freedom.

Democrats chose to tack to these conservative winds. Bill Clinton’s New Democrats echoed the themes rather than challenge them. “The era of big government is over,” he told Americans, while celebrating “ending welfare as we know it,” deregulation of Wall Street… Obama chose consciously not to challenge the conservative limits on what freedom means.

Then she gets to her main argument. She wants Hillary Clinton to lead an effort to redefine the meaning of freedom.

This is Hillary Clinton’s historic opportunity. …She would do a great service for the country — and for her own political prospects — by offering a far more expansive American view of what freedom requires, and what threatens it. …expanding freedom from want by lifting the floor under workers, insuring every child a healthy start, providing free public education from pre-k to college, rebuilding the United States and putting people to work… Will she favor fair taxes on the rich and corporations to rebuild the United States and put people to work? Will she make the case for vital public investments — in new energy, in infrastructure, in education and training — that have been starved for too long? Will she call for breaking up banks…? Will she favor expanding social security…? …to offer Americans a bolder conception of freedom…and set up the debate that America must decide.

Needless to say, I strongly disagree with such policies. How can “freedom” be based on having entitlements to other people’s money?!?

Heck, it’s almost like slavery since it presupposes that a “right” to live off the labor of others. But that’s not technically true since presumably there wouldn’t be any requirement to work. So what would really happen in such a society is that people would conclude it’s better to ride in the wagon of government dependency, as illustrated by these cartoons.

Which means, sooner or later, a Greek-style collapse because a shrinking population of producers can’t keep pace with an ever-expanding population of moochers and looters.

Nonetheless, I give Ms. vanden Heuvel credit for acknowledging that her preferred policies are contrary to the traditional definition of freedom.

To be sure, I’d admire her even more if she simply admitted that she favors government coercion over freedom. That would be true honesty, but I can understand that folks on the left would prefer to change the meaning of words rather than admit what their agenda really implies.

P.S. Some of you may recognize that the issues discussed above are basically a rehash of the debate between advocates of “negative liberty” and supporters of “positive liberty.” The former is focused on protecting people from the predations of government while the latter is about somehow guaranteeing goodies from the government.

P.P.S. As mentioned in Ms. vanden Heuvel’s column, today’s effort to redefine freedom is similar to the so-called economic bill of rights peddled in the 1940s by FDR.

 

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Since almost everybody wants a society that is just, that presumably means we all favor “social justice.”

But in the American political system, the phrase has been adopted by those who favor bigger government and more intervention. Sort of the way “solidarity” and “social” are code words for statism in Europe.

Leftists think that this phrase gives them the moral high ground, but shouldn’t we judge “social justice” by outcomes rather than intentions?

Is statism really compassionate if it actually winds up lining the pockets of wealthy insiders?

Is statism really compassionate when it gives people an excuse to be stingy, as we see in Europe?

Is statism really compassionate when it means less long-run growth and lower living standards for ordinary people?

The answers to those questions probably depend on one’s definition of a just society.

For those fixated on equality, it appears that they are willing to accept more deprivation and hardship if everyone is equally poor. Which is the sentiment expressed in this clever image.

Supporters of liberty, by contrast, want less government because they don’t mind if some people get richer faster than other people get richer.

You won’t (or at least shouldn’t) be surprised that John Stossel is in the latter category. Writing for Reason, he debunks the notion that “social justice” is either social or justice. Instead, he explains that it’s just a new term for a defective product.

Protestors demand “social justice.” …But there’s nothing “just” about the leftist protesters’ claimed solution: more big government.

He points out that Venezuela supposedly is a role model for social justice, yet ordinary people are impoverished.

Oliver Stone, Sean Penn and Harry Belafonte praised Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez for his socialist revolution. Chavez then proceeded to destroy much of his country. …Only socialism could take an oil-rich nation and turn it into one where people wait in line for hours for survival rations.

Stossel correctly explains that genuine social justice is achieved with free markets.

Without the free market setting prices and allocating resources, all the cries of “justice” in the world don’t help anyone. You can’t eat justice. You can’t use it as toilet paper. …Socialists say capitalists just want to make a quick buck, but it’s government that can’t plan for the long haul. …Calling it “social justice” doesn’t make it work. …Markets, in which individuals, not just rulers, have property rights, give people options. Businesses have an incentive to serve as many people as possible, regardless of gender or ethnic group. They also have an incentive to be nice—customers are more likely to trade with people who treat them fairly. Everyone gets to choose his own path. That’s what I call justice.

Of course, I’m not holding my breath waiting for statists to agree with me or John Stossel.

That’s because, as Jonah Goldberg explains in this Prager University video, “social justice” is a catch-all term for the left’s agenda. And that agenda means more power for government and less freedom for individuals.

I particularly like how Jonah explains how statists are the ones that want to impose their values on others.

P.S. If you enjoyed this video, you’ll also like other Prager University videos, including ones on profits, the Laffer Curve, and the Great Depression.

P.P.S. I wrote last month to mock Senator Bernie Sanders for being a hopeless statist, but I also said he was a “faux socialist.”

George Will has the same jaded assessment.

Is it obligatory to take seriously his pose of being…a “socialist”? It gives excitable Democratic activists a frisson of naughtiness to pretend… In olden days, socialism meant something robust — government ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Then, voters and reality being resistant to such socialism, the idea was diluted to mean just government ownership of an economy’s “commanding heights,” principally heavy industries, coal mines, railroads, etc.

But you’d have a hard time finding people who still believe that nonsense, even in the diluted form. In Europe, for instance, Social Democrats have morphed into conventional statists.

Today, “socialism,” at least in Western Europe where the term is still part of the political lexicon, is the thin gruel of “social democracy.” This means three things — heavy government regulation of commercial activities, government provision of a “social safety net” and redistribution of wealth through progressive taxation and entitlement programs. …Sanders, who thinks European social democracies are exemplary, evidently thinks America should be more like Greece.

And Thomas Sowell has the best (and most hard-hitting) way of describing the ideology of modern-day statists.

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Back during the 2012 presidential campaign, I criticized the view that America was divided between “makers” and “takers.”

But not because I disagreed with the notion that people trapped in government dependency have an unfortunate self-interest in supporting politicians who want a bigger welfare state. Indeed, I’ve explicitly warned that some statist politicians explicitly want to create more dependency to advance their power.

That being said, it’s important to understand the depth of the problem. It’s not accurate, as I’ve written, to assume that people who don’t pay tax are part of the moocher class.

…those people are not necessarily looking for freebies from government. Far from it. Many of them have private sector jobs and believe in self reliance and individual responsibility. Or they’re students, retirees, or others who don’t happen to have enough income to pay taxes, but definitely don’t see themselves as wards of the state.

Moreover, it’s not even accurate to say that households receiving benefits from the government are part of the dependency class.

…the share of households receiving goodies from the government...is approaching 50 percent and it probably is much more correlated with the group of people in the country who see the state as a means of living off their fellow citizens. But even that correlation is likely to be very imprecise since some government beneficiaries – such as Social Security recipients – spent their lives in the private sector and are taking benefits simply because they had no choice but to participate in the system.

If we really want to understand the depth of America’s dependency problem, it’s much better to look at the share of the population that gets money from anti-poverty programs.

The Census Bureau has just released a report looking at the share of the population receiving “means-tested” benefits, which is the term for programs targeting low-income recipients. Here are some of the highlights (or lowlights) from the accompanying release.

Approximately 52.2 million (or 21.3 percent) people in the U.S. participated in major means-tested government assistance programs each month in 2012, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report released today. Participation rates were highest for Medicaid (15.3 percent) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the food stamp program (13.4 percent). The average monthly participation rate in major means-tested programs increased from 18.6 percent in 2009 to 20.9 percent in 2011. …The largest share of participants (43.0 percent) in any of the public assistance programs stayed in the programs between 37 and 48 months.

Perhaps more worrisome are the details on how some segments of the population are more likely to be trapped in government dependency.

In an average month, 39.2 percent of children received some type of means-tested benefit, compared with 16.6 percent of people age 18 to 64 and 12.6 percent of people 65 and older. …At 41.6 percent, blacks were more likely to participate in government assistance programs in an average month. …At 50 percent, people in female-householder families had the highest rates of participation in major means-tested programs.

Though perhaps “trapped” is too strong a word. As you can see from this table, less than 50 percent of recipients appear to be long-term dependents.

Looking at all this data, my conclusion is that we’re not in any immediate danger of hitting a “tipping point” of too much dependency. To be sure, the trends are not favorable, thanks to politicians like Obama, but 21 percent of the population receiving means-tested benefits is not nearly as bad as 47 percent.

Though it appears that the Census Bureau doesn’t count the “earned income credit” in its calculations. That’s an odd omission since it is a means-tested spending program (operated through the tax code). So the problem presumably is worse than what is stated in the report, but I’m assuming that there’s a big overlap between EIC recipients and those already counted by the Census Bureau. which means that the share of households getting money from Uncle Sam is still significantly less than 30 percent.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be worried. Indeed, the welfare state should be radically changed because we care about both taxpayers and poor people.

Writing for The Federalist, Robert Tracinski explores specific policies that would restrain and reduce the welfare state.

He lists seven ideas, which I’ve shared below (in very abbreviated form) followed by my two cents.

1) Repeal ObamaCare – If we want to roll back the welfare state, we will never have any better opportunity to start than by repealing ObamaCare—a program that is relatively new, has never been popular, and is in a slow process of imploding.

My response: Fully agree.

2) Health Savings Accounts – Scrapping ObamaCare would be a natural opportunity for Republicans to propose their own free-market health-care reforms. The centerpiece of that alternative should be Health Savings Accounts, which make it easier for individuals to save money in tax-free accounts which they can use for medical expenses.

My response: Not my preferred option. HSAs are a big improvement over the current system and presumably would help with the third-party payer problem, but fixing healthcare requires far bigger changes to Medicare, Medicaid, and the tax code’s fringe benefit loophole. And if you make those changes, HSAs wouldn’t really matter.

3) Means-test Social Security – Social Security is already a bad deal for the middle class, since the benefits are already skewed in such a way that they are equivalent to a tiny return, between 1 and 2 percent annually, on what might have been a private investment. By contrast, long-term returns on the stock market are about 7 percent annually. And in order to make Social Security sustainable, it will have to become a much worse deal.

My response: Also not my preferred option. Too many otherwise sensible people are giving up on personal retirement accounts.

4) Restart economic growth – the United States has slipped into the Obama rate of growth, a permanent state of semi-stagnation. We’ve been through market crashes and recessions before, but usually after a year or two of pain, we get a strong burst of growth to make up for it. …This low rate of growth makes the burden of the welfare state greater, because we can no longer grow our way out from under its expenses. …If we’re going to expect people to be more self-reliant, they must also have a sense of economic hope.

My response: Hard to argue with this suggestion, or the description of the problem.

5) Re-reform welfare – …the Obama administration has used the recession to gut the welfare reform of the 1990s, extending unemployment benefits and loosening work requirements. …the administration has used the state for the opposite purpose: to push people from self-reliance into dependence.

My response: Also hard to argue with this suggestion. It’s very worrisome how leftists are operating behind the scenes to push more dependency.

6) Save the cities – …the centers of economic inequality and racial conflict—the key issues on which Democrats always campaign—are places that are the sole property of Democrats, owned and run by them for about as long as anyone can remember. …If we want less class and racial conflict, if we want more people moving up into the middle class and no longer feeling the need for government support, if we want to compete for the vote in what are now deep centers of political support for the left—then we need to start targeting the cities for basic reforms that will improve the quality of life there and bring back the middle class.

My response: A very accurate description of the problem, but I suspect advocates of limited government won’t gain control of policy in big cities, so it might be better to first focus on rhetorical efforts to explain how statism leads to bad results.

7) Federalism – This is not a foolproof solution, because we’ll still occasionally get local handouts… But the general idea is that we can let New York and California set up more generous welfare states—if they want to pay for them. And they should let the hinterland scale back welfare. Then the states can compete to see whose approach is more successful and how many people vote with their feet for the small government model.

My response: Bingo!! This is far and away the right answer and it’s got plenty of intellectual firepower behind it.

America isn’t Europe, either in terms of policy or attitudes. But I worry that we’re heading that direction.

The Census Bureau gives us the data and Robert Tracinski has given us some good answers.

But will the solutions be implemented before too many people are riding in the wagon of government dependency? Because once you reach that point, there’s probably little hope.

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President Obama recently took part in a poverty panel at Georgetown University. By D.C. standards, it was ideologically balanced since there were three statists against one conservative (I’ve dealt with that kind of “balance” when dealing with the media, as you can see here and here).

You won’t be surprised to learn that the President basically regurgitated the standard inside-the-beltway argument that caring for the poor means you have to support bigger government and more redistribution.

Many observers were unimpressed. Here’s some of what Bill McGurn wrote for the Wall Street Journal.

The unifying progressive contention here is the assertion that America isn’t “investing” enough in the poor—by which is meant the government isn’t spending enough. …President Obama…went on to declare it will be next to impossible to find “common ground” on poverty until his critics accept his spending argument.

I think this argument is nonsense. We’re spending record amounts of money on means-tested, anti-poverty programs, yet the poverty rate hasn’t come down since the “War on Poverty” started.

Indeed, you can make a very persuasive case that government intervention has backfired since the poverty rate was falling before the federal government got involved. Yet now that Washington is paying people to be poor, progress has ground to a halt.

In his column, though, McGurn pointed out that it’s also important to look at how money is spent.

…it’s simply false to say that Republicans won’t make the public “investments” needed to help the poor. In New York in the 1990s, for example, Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani not only invested in the police but sent them into the areas where they were most needed—primarily poor and minority neighborhoods. In too many other Democratic cities, by contrast, mayors in effect cede whole neighborhoods to the thugs and gangs. Republicans are also willing to spend on education. What they are not willing to do is dump ever more dollars down the same rathole of big-city public school systems that function more as jobs programs for city bureaucrats and members of the teachers unions.

And he challenged the view of some GOPers that government spending will promote stable families.

…it would similarly be good for Republicans to address the hard implications of their own message. If, for example, broken families are indeed driving modern American poverty, is the only answer despair—or praying for some miracle? And if you believe the government can’t help but bungle something as basic as food stamps, shouldn’t you bring this same skepticism to a “conservative” program that enlists the government to, say, discourage divorce or promote chastity?

I certainly agree with that point. President Bush’s program to encourage marriage certainly wasn’t a success.

But let’s focus on the present. Here’s some of what Thomas Sowell said about Obama’s performance. As you can see, he was not impressed with the President’s abuse of the English language.

One of the ways of fighting poverty, [the President] proposed, was to “ask from society’s lottery winners” that they make a “modest investment” in government programs to help the poor. …But the federal government does not just “ask” for money. It takes the money it wants in taxes, usually before the people who have earned it see their paychecks. …It seizes what it wants by force. If you don’t pay up, it can take not only your paycheck, it can seize your bank account, put a lien on your home and/or put you in federal prison. So please don’t insult our intelligence by talking piously about “asking.”

And Sowell closes his column by raising the fundamental question of whether it makes sense to let government consume a greater share of economic output.

The fact that most of the rhetorical ploys used by Barack Obama and other redistributionists will not stand up under scrutiny means very little politically. After all, how many people who come out of our schools and colleges today are capable of critical scrutiny? When all else fails, redistributionists can say, as Obama did at Georgetown University, that “coldhearted, free-market capitalist types” are people who “pretty much have more than you’ll ever be able to use and your family will ever be able to use,” so they should let the government take that extra money to help the poor. …The real question is whether the investment of wealth is likely to be done better by those who created that wealth in the first place or by politicians. The track record of politicians hardly suggests that turning ever more of a nation’s wealth over to them is likely to turn out well.

Amen. The academic evidence is very strong that nations with large public sectors suffer from economic anemia.

And since the poor are most dependent on growth to get a good foothold on the economic ladder, Prof. Sowell surely is right when he states that it’s better to leave resources in the productive sector of the economy. Moreover, he’s explained in the past that the welfare state certainly doesn’t help the poor.

P.S. Since today’s column ended with a discussion about whether government should be bigger or smaller, it’s appropriate to share this bit of humor concocted by the Princess of the Levant.

If you’re a new reader and don’t get the joke, Richard is famous for the Rahn Curve, though I think he overstates the growth-maximizing size of government. As such, I argue that we need to impose my (not nearly as famous) Golden Rule of spending restraint.

P.P.S. Shifting back to the topic of poverty and redistribution, we should all be very concerned that the Obama White is trying to manipulate the definition of poverty in order to justify ever-larger amounts of redistribution and dependency. And you won’t be surprised to learn that the OECD supports this dishonest and misleading initiative.

P.P.P.S. Here’s an image that accurately summarizes the left’s misguided view of redistribution.

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