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Posts tagged ‘antipoverty programs’

Why Most Antipoverty Programs are Not Effective

In Part 1 Diogenes discussed in economic terms what it means to be poor in America and reviewed federal programs for those in need. After 50 years of effort and spending at a rate of about $600 billion/year, more Americans are poor than when the programs began. An old adage states that “insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.” Here we will look at a policy alternative to current approaches.

The primary reason for the failure of governmental poverty programs is an “agency problem.” The antipoverty bureaucracy has itself often become an impediment to those who would try to climb out of poverty because of disincentives for working. We have agencies that try to insure that those receiving aid it use it for “correct” purposes (milk, not beer).  Such attempts always fail because nobody spends somebody else’s money as carefully as their own. And then there is the cost of the agency. For example, the food stamps program (SNAP) has program costs of about 12%.

Add in waste and poor management, and today America cumulatively spends more on poverty programs than it would cost to raise the income of every American above the poverty level. Even assuming NO income for the 46.2 million Americans in poverty, and multiplying by the $11,170 per capita that is the level below which per capita poverty is defined, would cost about $514 billion. The costs would be considerably less if we gave this aid on a household income basis.

The only enduring cure for poverty is increasing production of goods and services which result in greater demand for labor, because ultimately jobs are needed to pull people out of poverty no matter how good government antipoverty programs are. In other words, free markets are the ultimate antipoverty programs.

What We Should Do

Diogenes believes that America should implement a Guaranteed Minimum Income (GMI). Also known as a Negative Income Tax (NIT), a GMI would provide baseline support to which all would be entitled. Diogenes would define this as the federally defined household income poverty level of $23,050 for a family of four, plus $1. Adjustments up or down would be made for additional children and for each state’s cost of living.  The GMI would be implemented through the tax code utilizing IRS infrastructure.

The GMI is not a new idea. Milton Friedman advocated for a NIT in the early 1960s. Legislation was first proposed during the Nixon administration, and had support from both liberals and conservatives along with a long list of recipients of Nobel Prizes in Economics and other economists, but ultimately did not pass Congress.

Almost all other antipoverty programs should be phased out in order to pay for the GMI. The GMI would be far more efficient than welfare, food stamps, subsidized housing, unemployment benefits, and the 47 different federal job training programs. The GMI should be progressively phased out at a rate of 50% reduction of benefits per dollar of income, so as to incentivize Americans to find any sort of work at any wage.

The GMI would also necessitate a repeal of minimum wage laws, as all workers would already be guaranteed a base income just above the poverty level. Any work income would incrementally reduce government assistance even as the workers’ household income rose to median levels. Reducing the costs of unskilled labor would encourage business to hire more workers, providing crucial entry level jobs that are priced away with existing minimum wage laws.

At first blush, the move to a GMI might appear to be a radical shift away from the status quo. However, the GMI would be a dramatic expansion of perhaps the single most efficacious federal antipoverty program, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Congress first implemented the EITC in 1975 to offset the burden of social security taxes for the working poor, in order to provide greater incentive to work. When the EITC exceeds the amount of taxes owed, it results in a tax refund to those who claim and qualify for the credit. According to the IRS, the total cost of the EITC was $61 billion in 2011, and program costs were less than 1%. It helped move 6.6 million Americans, half of them children, out of poverty. In 2013, the maximum credit to a married couple filing jointly with three children is $6,044. The credit phases out as income increases to about the national median income level.

Why This Hasn’t Been Done Before

Diogenes proposes to dramatically expand the single best program we have and replace lots of programs that do not work. The incremental cost would be nothing because the change would redirect current antipoverty funding. And if the program succeeds, it’s cost would decline. So who would disagree? For starters, the entire federal antipoverty bureaucracy who would lose their jobs. Unlike the private sector, government is rarely reorganized when the results yield fewer jobs.

Historically, government antipoverty programs have seemed reluctant to give cash aid to the poor. For example, food stamps have value restricted to consumable products excluding alcohol, as if aid recipients didn’t know how to spend what funds they have. The moral legitimization of the welfare system requires that recipients use aid to support lifestyles that comport in some rough sense with the idea of a good life held by taxpayers who provide the funds. In the minds of many, it’s one thing to provide a safety net, and another to support those who just don’t want to work. The counter argument is that by keeping a GMI at a less than “comfortable” level for able bodied Americans, incentives to work would dramatically increase.

Others might argue that there are other problems with a GMI:

  • The incentive to work is reduced, however marginally, by providing any level of guaranteed income.
  • If government lowers the minimum guaranteed level below an absolute safety net, we don’t fulfill our societal imperative to provide for all who are unable, for whatever reason, to provide for themselves.
  • By having only a gradual phaseout of support as income grows, we invariably will pay (some) benefits to those above the poverty level.
  • Whatever the initial level of a GMI, politicians will continue to raise the amount until it eventually bankrupts us. Just look at Social Security, welfare and the Income Tax for examples.

The rebuttal to these arguments is that living at the no work GMI base level is pretty tough in America. No one would want that kind of life if they could reasonably easily augment it. Raising lower than median incomes to the median level (about $51,000 for a family of four), would be an excellent use of American resources. Because of income inequality, this measure is far below the mean income, and we are already spending at the cost of a GMI with far less effective programs. A limit to future spending largesse could be enshrined in the legislation by defining the base income to $1 over the poverty level and by pegging the phaseout of the GMI to an upper limit just below the median income.

A GMI would not be a perfect program, but the perfect is not to be found. It would be a significant improvement over current antipoverty programs and would not cost taxpayers a dime. Isn’t that something virtually everyone wants?

What does it mean to be poor in America?

There are many ways of defining poverty. For most of recorded history, man’s basic needs were food, clothing and shelter. In recent generations, we have included access to clean water, sanitation, health care and education. Poverty can also mean a relative lack of material goods or money, so that in every “free society” (where inequality in income to some extent reflects inequality in ability and effort)  some portion of the population will be considered poor.

We can also define poverty in overtly economic terms. The federal poverty threshold is $11,722 in annual income for an individual, and $23,497 for a family of four, which is about 44% of mean income for an individual and 30% of the mean for a family of four. The economic definition of poverty has changed over time, but real wage growth in the 1960s caused the poverty rate to fall from about 20% in the 1950s to around 15% of our citizens today.

A hundred years ago, having enough food to eat meant that you weren’t poor in most places. In most wealthy countries, death by starvation is already very rare. Poor Americans today are not likely to be starving, though malnutrition remains a scourge. Many live in households that have a refrigerator, a washing machine, a high definition TV with cable , an XBox and a cellular phone. In fact, the electronic gadgets used by our poor are not substantially different than those employed by the wealthiest Americans. Overall, the quantities and qualities of what ordinary Americans consume are closer to that of rich Americans than they were in decades past despite growing income disparities between the wealthy and the poor.

The inflation-adjusted hourly wage hasn’t changed much in 50 years. Still, it is unlikely that an average American, even one living in poverty, would trade his wages and benefits in 2013—along with access to the most affordable food, appliances, clothing and cars in history, plus today’s cornucopia of modern electronic goods—for the same real wages but with much lower benefits in the 1950s or 1970s, along with those era’s higher prices, more limited selection, and inferior products.

Is it better to be poor here than elsewhere?

Poverty tends to be defined in the relative sense. The poorest 5-10% of a population would probably be considered poor in any society, but to the extent that “fairness” in a society is defined as less disparity between rich and poor, a higher percent of US citizens would be considered poor than in most other developed countries. The OECD, a rich-country club, provides comparative figures for a poverty line of 40% of median household income after tax and transfer. On that basis America’s rate is 11%, well above the OECD average of 6%.

Another way to define poverty is in an absolute sense rather than a relative one. The World Bank estimates that “extreme absolute poverty” is living on somewhere between $1-2/day/person depending on where one lives. Few Americans are this unfortunate, but something like 20% of the world’s population are subject to these conditions, so most poor Americans could be considered “not poor” in most of the world.

Are federal anti-poverty programs working?

Federal programs to reduce poverty in America trace their origins to FDR and the New Deal in the 1930s, though what most Americans would identify as specific anti-poverty programs were begun in 1964 with LBJ’s Economic Opportunity Act which came to be known as the “war on poverty”. Today, there are more than 120 different federal anti-poverty programs. The major ones are Medicaid, unemployment insurance, food stamps and welfare, ans our government spends about as much on these programs as it does on defense. And yet, almost 50 years later, and despite about $13 trillion dollars spent, the rate of poverty and the total number of Americans living in poverty has not been significantly reduced.

“…the federal government spent more than $591 billion in 2009 on means-tested or anti-poverty programs, and will undoubtedly spend even more this year. That amounts to $14,849 for every poor man, woman and child in America. Given that the poverty line is just $10,830 (in 2009), we could have mailed every poor person in America a check big enough to lift them out of poverty – and still saved money.”  M.D.Tanner, NY Times, 9/16/2010

In general, the liberal left’s approach to social policy is to shield people from the American economy, while conservatives’ approach must be to enable them to enjoy its benefits—to enable people to move up rather than to make them more secure in poverty. Some call for a wholesale rethinking of antipoverty programs.

“The bottom 20% in America are not stuck because their welfare support is insufficient. It is because these cultural institutions are not helping them lead the lives they deserve. Volumes of research have shown that Great Society welfare policies—such as public housing and aid to families with dependent children—fueled family dissolution, community fragmentation, generational joblessness and government dependency. Many … welfare and redistribution policies are encouraging a return to these conditions.” Arthur Brooks, WSJ, 10/8/12

Some might argue that one of the causes of persistently large numbers of Americans living in poverty is that economic mobility constantly moves some of our citizens out of poverty even as others descend into poverty from the middle class. This notion of being able to move from rags to riches in a generation is a fundamental plank of the American Dream. Unfortunately, Americans’ perceptions about their likelihood of changing position in the income distribution may be exaggerated. Those within the three middle quintiles (the middle class) will, statistically, experience some economic mobility. But according to a study by the Pew Economic Mobility Project, 43 percent of children whose parents were born in the bottom quintile remained at the bottom when they became adults. In contrast, 40 percent of children born to parents at the top quintile were also at the top as adults. The study compared inter-generational mobility rates between 1984 to 1994 and 1994 to 2004. In addition, contrary to public perceptions, social mobility in the US is less than in Europe.

What to do?

As a nation, it is dangerous to our social fabric to have created a semi-permanent underclass living in poverty. Spending more on poverty programs does not appear realistic now, especially in fiscally austere times. We need to make sure the programs we do have create incentives to replace handouts with wages, even as we strive to close the opportunity gap through better education for all. The best solutions are complex and to be found through a mix of policies including education reforms and revamping the tax code.

Most Americans, regardless of their political leanings, desire a strong safety net for all citizens. Americans living in poverty do not have comfortable or easy lives, and taking advantage of available programs is incredibly time consuming, even as it is dispiriting. Permanent solutions are to be found not in more funding or more programs, but from economic growth that fuels demand for more employees at higher real wages.