Posts Tagged ‘Welfare’

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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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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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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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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