The U.S. labor force participation (LFP) rate has yet to bounce back to its pre-recession level. Some of the decline is due to retiring baby-boomers but even the prime-age LFP rate, which only counts people age 25 – 54 and thus less affected by retirement, has not recovered.

Economists and government officials are concerned about the weak recovery in labor force participation. A high LFP rate is usually a sign of a strong economy—people are either working or optimistic about their chances of finding a job. A low LFP rate is often a sign of little economic opportunity or disappointment with the employment options available.

The U.S. is a large, diverse country so the national LFP rate obscures substantial state variation in LFP rates. The figure below shows the age 16 and up LFP rates for the 50 states and the U.S. as a whole (black bar) in 2014. (data)


The rates range from a high of 72.6% in North Dakota to a low of 53.1% in West Virginia. The U.S. rate was 62.9%. Several of the states with relatively low rates are in the south, including Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas. Florida and Arizona also had relatively low labor force participation, which is not surprising considering their reputations as retirement destinations.

There are several reasons why some states have more labor force participation than others. Demographics is one: states with a higher percentage of people over age 65 and between 16 and 22 will have lower rates on average since people in these age groups are often retired or in school full time. States also have different economies made up of different industries and at any given time some industries are thriving while others are struggling.

Federal and state regulation also play a role. Federal regulation disparately impacts different states because of the different industrial compositions of state economies. For example, states with large energy industries tend to be more affected by federal regulation than other states.

States also tax and regulate their labor markets differently. States have different occupational licensing standards, different minimum wages and different levels of payroll and income taxes among other things. Each of these things alters the incentive for businesses to hire or for people to join the labor market and thus affects states’ LFP rates.

We can see the relationship between labor market freedom and labor force participation in the figure below. The figure shows the relationship between the Economic Freedom of North America’s 2013 labor market freedom score (x-axis) and the 2014 labor force participation rate for each state (y-axis).


As shown in the figure there is a positive relationship—more labor market freedom is associated with a higher LFP rate on average. States with lower freedom scores such as Mississippi, Kentucky and Alabama also had low LFP rates while states with higher freedom scores such as North Dakota, South Dakota and Virginia had higher LFP rates.

This is not an all-else-equal analysis and other variables—such as demographics and industry composition which I mentioned earlier—also play a role. That being said, state officials concerned about their state’s labor market should think about what they can do to increase labor market freedom—and economic freedom more broadly—in their state.

You’d think that eight years after the financial crisis, cities would have recovered. Instead, declining tax revenues following the economic downturn paired with growing liabilities have slowed recovery. Some cities exacerbated their situations with poor policy choices. Much could be learned by studying how city officials manage their finances in response to fiscal crises.

Detroit made history in 2013 when it became the largest city to declare bankruptcy after decades of financial struggle. Other cities like Stockton and San Bernardino in California had their own financial battles that also resulted in bankruptcy. Their policy decisions reflect the most extreme responses to fiscal crises.

You could probably count on both hands how many cities file for bankruptcy each year, but this is not an extremely telling statistic as cities often take many other steps to alleviate budget problems and view bankruptcy as a last resort. When times get tough, city officials often reduce payments into their pension systems, raise taxes – or when that doesn’t seem adequate – find themselves cutting services or laying off public workers.

It turns out that many municipalities weathered the 2008 recession without needing to take such extreme actions. Studying how these cities managed to recover more quickly than cities like Stockton provides interesting insight on what courses of action can help city officials better respond to fiscal distress.

A new Mercatus study examines the types of actions that public officials have taken under fiscal distress and then concludes with recommendations that could help future crises from occurring. Their empirical model finds that increased reserves, lower debt, and better tax structures all significantly improve a city’s fiscal health.

The authors, researchers Evgenia Gorina and Craig Maher, define fiscal distress as:

“the condition of local finances that does not permit the government to provide public services and meet its own operating needs to the extent to which these have been provided and met previously.”

In order to determine whether a city or county government is under fiscal distress, the authors study the actual actions taken by city officials between 2007 and 2012. Their approach is unique because it stands in contrast with previous literature that primarily looks to poorly performing financial indicators to measure fiscal distress. An example of such an indicator would be how much cash a government has on hand relative to its liabilities.

Although financial indicators can tell someone a lot about the fiscal condition of their locality, they are only a snapshot of financial resources on hand and don’t provide information on how previous policy choices got them to their current state. A robust analysis of a city’s financial health would require a deeper look. Looking at policy decisions as well as financial indicators can paint a more complete picture of just how financial resources are being managed.

The figure here displays the types of actions, or “fiscal distress episodes”, that the authors of the study found were the most common among cities in California, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. As expected, you’ll see that bankruptcy occurs much less frequently than other courses of action. The top three most common attempts to meet fundamental operating needs and service requirements during times of fiscal distress include (1) large across-the-board budget cuts or cuts in services, (2) blanket reduction in employee salaries, and (3) unusual tax rate or fee increases.


Another thing that becomes clear from this figure is that public workers and taxpayers appear to be adversely affected by the most common fiscal episodes. Cuts in services, reductions in employee salaries, large tax increases, and layoffs all place much of the distress on these groups. By contrast, actions like fund transfers, deferring capital projects, or late budget enactment don’t directly affect public workers or taxpayers (at least in the short term).

I decided to break down how episodes affected public workers and taxpayers for each state examined in the sample. 91% of California’s municipal fiscal distress episodes directly affected public employees or the provision of public services, while the remaining 9% indirectly affected them. Michigan and Pennsylvania followed with 85% and 66% of episodes, respectively, directly affecting public workers or taxpayers through cuts in services, tax increases, or layoffs.

Many of these actions surely happen in tandem with each other in more distressed cities, but it seems that more often than not, the burden falls heavily on public workers and taxpayers.

The city officials who had to make these hard decisions obviously did so under financially and politically intense circumstances; what many, including researchers like Gorina and Maher, consider to be a fiscal crisis. In fact, 32 percent of the communities across the three states in their sample experienced fiscal distress which, on its own, sheds light on the magnitude of the 2007-2009 recession. A large motivator of Gorina and Maher’s research is to understand what characteristics of the cities who more quickly rebounded from the Great Recession allowed them to prevent hitting fiscal crisis stage in the first place.

They do so by testing the effect of a city’s pre-existing fiscal condition on their likelihood to undergo fiscal distress. After controlling for things like government type, size, and local economic factors, they found that cities that had larger reserves and lower debt tended to weather the recession better relative to other cities. More specifically, declining general revenue balance as a percent of general expenditures and increases in debt as a share of total revenue both increase the odds of fiscal distress for a city.

Additionally, the authors found that cities with a greater reliance on property taxes managed to weather the recession better than governments reliant on other revenue sources. This suggests that revenue structure, not just the amount of revenue raised, is an important determinant of fiscal health.

No city wants to end up like Detroit or Scranton. Policymakers in these cities were forced to make hard choices that were politically unpopular; often harming public employees and taxpayers. Officials can look to Gorina and Maher’s research to understand how they can prevent ending up in such dire situations.

When approaching municipal finances, each city’s unique situation should of course be taken into consideration. This requires looking at each city’s economic history and financial practices, similar to what my colleagues have done for Scranton. Combining each city’s financial context with principles of sound financial management can surely help more cities find and maintain a healthy fiscal path.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the 1996 welfare reforms, which has generated some discussion about poverty in the U.S. I recently spoke to a group of high school students on this topic and about what reforms, if any, should be made to our means-tested welfare programs.

After reading several papers (e.g. here, here and here), the book Hillbilly Elegy, and reflecting on my own experiences I am not convinced the government is capable of doing much more.


President Lyndon Johnson declared “War on Poverty” in his 1964 state of the union address. Over the last 50 years there has been some progress but there are still approximately 43 million Americans living in poverty as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Early on it looked as if poverty would be eradicated fairly quickly. In 1964, prior to the “War on Poverty”, the official poverty rate was 20%. It declined rapidly from 1965 to 1972, especially for the most impoverished groups as shown in the figure below (data from Table 1 in Haveman et al. , 2015). (Click to enlarge)


Since 1972 the poverty rate has remained fairly constant. It reached its lowest point in 1973—11.1%—but has since fluctuated between roughly 11% and 15%, largely in accordance with the business cycle. The number of people in poverty has increased, but that is unsurprising considering the relatively flat poverty rate coupled with a growing population.


Meanwhile, an alternative measure called the supplemental poverty measure (SPM) has declined, but it was still over 15% as of 2013, as shown below.


The official poverty measure (OPM) only includes cash and cash benefits in its measure of a person’s resources, while the SPM includes tax credits and non-cash transfers (e.g. food stamps) as part of someone’s resources when determining their poverty status. The SPM also makes adjustments for local cost of living.

For example, the official poverty threshold for a single person under the age of 65 was $12,331 in 2015. But $12,331 can buy more in rural South Carolina than it can in Manhattan, primarily because of housing costs. The SPM takes these differences into account, although I am not sure it should for reasons I won’t get into here.

Regardless of the measure we look at, poverty is still higher than most people would probably expect considering the time and resources that have been expended trying to reduce it. This is especially true in high-poverty areas where poverty rates still exceed 33%.

A county-level map from the Census that uses the official poverty measure shows the distribution of poverty across the 48 contiguous states in 2014. White represents the least amount of poverty (3.2% to 11.4%) and dark pink the most (32.7% to 52.2%).


The most impoverished counties are in the south, Appalachia and rural west, though there are pockets of high-poverty counties in the plains states, central Michigan and northern Maine.

Why haven’t we made more progress on poverty? And is there more that government can do? I think these questions are intertwined. My answer to the first is it’s complicated and to the second I don’t think so.

Past efforts

The inability to reduce the official poverty rate below 10% doesn’t appear to be due to a lack of money. The figure below shows real per capita expenditures—sum of federal, state and local—on the top 84 (top line) and the top 10 (bottom line) means-tested welfare poverty programs since 1970. It is from Haveman et al. (2015).


There has been substantial growth in both since the largest drop in poverty occurred in the late 1960s. If money was the primary issue one would expect better results over time.

So if the amount of money is not the issue what is? It could be that even though we are spending money, we aren’t spending it on the right things. The chart below shows real per capita spending on several different programs and is also from Haveman et al. (2015).


Spending on direct cash-assistance programs—Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)—has fallen over time, while spending on programs designed to encourage work—Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)—and on non-cash benefits like food stamps and housing aid increased.

In the mid-1970s welfare programs began shifting from primarily cash aid (AFDC, TANF) to work-based aid (EITC). Today the EITC and food stamps are the core programs of the anti-poverty effort.

It’s impossible to know whether this shift has resulted in more or less poverty than what would have occurred without it. We cannot reconstruct the counterfactual without going back in time. But many people think that more direct cash aid, in the spirit of AFDC, is what’s needed.

The difference today is that instead of means-tested direct cash aid, many are calling for a universal basic income or UBI. A UBI would provide each citizen, from Bill Gates to the poorest single mother, with a monthly cash payment, no strings attached. Prominent supporters of a UBI include libertarian-leaning Charles Murray and people on the left such as Matt Bruenig and Elizabeth Stoker.

Universal Basic Income?

The details of each UBI plan vary, but the basic appeal is the same: It would reduce the welfare bureaucracy, simplify the process for receiving aid, increase the incentive to work at the margin since it doesn’t phase out, treat low-income people like adults capable of making their own decisions and mechanically decrease poverty by giving people extra cash.

A similar proposal is a negative income tax (NIT), first popularized by Milton Friedman. The current EITC is a negative income tax conditional on work, since it is refundable i.e. eligible people receive the difference between their EITC and the taxes they owe. The NIT has its own problems, discussed in the link above, but it still has its supporters.

In theory I like a UBI. Economists in general tend to favor cash benefits over in-kind programs like vouchers and food stamps due to their simplicity and larger effects on recipient satisfaction or utility. In reality, however, a UBI of even $5,000 is very expensive and there are public choice considerations that many UBI supporters ignore, or at least downplay, that are real problems.

The political process can quickly turn an affordable UBI into an unaffordable one. It seems reasonable to expect that politicians trying to win elections will make UBI increases part of their platform, with each trying to outdo the other. There is little that can be done, short of a constitutional amendment (and even those can be changed), to ensure that political forces don’t alter the amount, recipient criteria or add additional programs on top of the UBI.

I think the history of the income tax demonstrates that a relatively low, simple UBI would quickly morph into a monstrosity. In 1913 there were 7 income tax brackets that applied to all taxpayers, and a worker needed to make more than $20K (equivalent to $487,733 in 2016) before he reached the second bracket of 2% (!). By 1927 there were 23 brackets and the second one, at 3%, kicked in at $4K ($55,500 in 2016) instead of $20K. And of course we are all aware of the current tax code’s problems. To chart a different course for the UBI is, in my opinion, a work of fantasy.

Final thoughts

Because of politics, I think an increase in the EITC (and reducing its error rate), for both working parents and single adults, coupled with criminal justice reform that reduces the number of non-violent felons—who have a hard time finding employment upon release—are preferable to a UBI.

I also support the abolition of the minimum wage, which harms the job prospects of low-skilled workers. If we are going to tie anti-poverty programs to work in order to encourage movement towards self-sufficiency, then we should make it as easy as possible to obtain paid employment. Eliminating the minimum wage and subsidizing income through the EITC is a fairer, more efficient way to reduce poverty.

Additionally, if a minimum standard of living is something that is supported by society than all of society should share the burden via tax-funded welfare programs. It is not philanthropic to force business owners to help the poor on behalf of the rest of us.

More economic growth would also help. Capitalism is responsible for lifting billions of people out of dire poverty in developing countries and the poverty rate in the U.S. falls during economic expansions (see previous poverty rate figures). Unfortunately, growth has been slow over the last 8 years and neither presidential candidate’s policies inspire much hope.

In fact, a good way for the government to help the poor is to reduce regulation and lower the corporate tax rate, which would help economic growth and increase wages.

Despite the relatively high official poverty rate in the U.S., poor people here live better than just about anywhere else in the world. Extreme poverty—think Haiti—doesn’t exist in the U.S. On a consumption rather than income basis, there’s evidence that the absolute poverty rate has fallen to about 4%.

Given the way government functions I don’t think there is much left for it to do. Its lack of local knowledge and resulting blunt, one size fits all solutions, coupled with its general inefficiency, makes it incapable of helping the unique cases that fall through the current social safety net.

Any additional progress will need to come from the bottom up and I will discuss this more in a future post.

In new Mercatus research, Adam Millsap and I and unpack the causes for almost a quarter of a century of fiscal distress in Scranton, Pennsylvania and offer some recommendations for how the city might go forward.

Since 1992, Scranton has been designated as a distressed municipality under Act 47, a law intended to help financially struggling towns and cities implement reforms. Scranton is now on its fifth Recovery plan, and while there are signs that the city is making improvements, it still has to contend with a legacy of structural, fiscal and economic problems.

We begin by putting Scranton in historical context. The city, located in northeastern Pennsylvania was once a thriving industrial hub, manufacturing coal, iron and providing T-rails for railroad tracks. By 1930, Scranton’s population peaked and the city’s economy began to change. Gas and oil replaced coal. The spread of the automobile and trucking diminished demand for railroad transport. By the 1960s Scranton was a smaller service-based economy with a declining population. Perhaps most relevant to its current fiscal situation is that the number of government workers increased as both the city’s population and tax base declined between 1969 and 1980.

An unrelenting increase in spending and weak revenues prompted the city to seek Act 47 designation kicking off two decades of attempts to reign in spending and change the city’s economic fortunes.

Our paper documents the various recovery plans and the reasons the measures they recommended either proved temporary, ineffective, or simply “didn’t stick.” A major obstacle to cost controls in the city are the hurdle of collective bargaining agreements with city police and firefighters, protected under Act 111, that proved to be more binding than Act 47 recovery plans.

The end result is that Scranton is facing rapidly rising employee costs for compensation, health care and pension benefits in addition to a $20 million back-pay award. These bills have led the city to pursue short-term fiscal relief in the form of debt issuance, sale-leaseback agreements and reduced pension contributions. The city’s tax structure has been described as antiquated relying mainly on Act 511 local taxes (business privilege and mercantile business tax, Local Services Tax (i.e. commuter tax)), property taxes and miscellaneous revenues and fees.

Tackling these problems requires structural reforms including 1) tax reform that does not penalize workers or businesses for locating in the city, 2) pension reform that includes allowing workers to move to a defined contribution plan and 3) removing any barrier to entrepreneurship that might prevent new businesses from locating in Scranton. In addition we recommend several state-level reforms to laws that have made it harder to Scranton to control its finances namely collective bargaining reform that removes benefits from negotiation; and eliminating “budget-helping” band-aids that mask the true cost of pensions. Such band-aids include state aid for municipal pension and allowing localities to temporarily reduce payments during tough economic times. Each of these has only helped to sustain fiscal illusion – giving the city an incomplete picture of the true cost of pensions.

To date Scranton has made some progress including planned asset monetizations to bring in revenues to cover the city’s bills. Paying down debts and closing deficits is crucial but not enough. For Pennsylvania’s distressed municipalities to thrive again reforms must replace poor fiscal institutions with ones that promote transparency, stability and prudence. This is the main way in which Scranton (and other Pennsylvania cities) can compete for businesses and residents: by offering government services at lower cost and eliminating penalties and barriers to locating, working and living in Scranton.

Loyalton, CA and the cost of faulty actuarial assumptions

October 21, 2016

The New York Times has an interesting piece on the pension troubles facing the small town of Loyalton, California (population 769). Loyalton has seen little economic activity since its sawmill closed in 2001. In 2010 the city made a decision to exit Calpers saving the city $30,000. The City Council thought that the decision to exit would […]

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Women are driving recent increase in age 25-54 labor force participation

October 7, 2016

Josh Zumbrun from the WSJ posted some interesting labor market charts that use data from today’s September jobs report. The one that jumped out at me was the one below, which shows the prime-age (age 25-54) employment and labor force participation (LFP) rate. In a related tweet he notes that the 25 – 54 LFP […]

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Pension funding practices and investment risk

October 6, 2016

A recent paper by Donald J. Boyd and Yimeng Yin of The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government at SUNY  investigates how public pension funding practices contribute to big funding gaps and the need for sudden contribution increases. This is a situation public sector plans find themselves in due to three reasons 1) muddling the […]

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Privatizing Water Facilities Can Help Cash-Strapped Municipalities

October 5, 2016

In my latest Forbes piece I discuss water privatization in the U.S. and why it is often a good idea. “A public-private partnership has several benefits versus a completely public system. First, private firms often operate in many different jurisdictions, which means they have more experience and are able to institute best practices based on their […]

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New York’s Buffalo Billion initiative has been underwhelming

September 28, 2016

New York’s Buffalo Billion plan has come under fire amidst an ongoing corruption probe looking into whether some contracts were inappropriately awarded to political donors. The investigation has led to funding delays and there are reports of some contractors and companies rethinking their investments. But even without these legal problems, it is unlikely that the […]

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Economic Freedom, Growth, and What Might Have Been

September 16, 2016

Economists are obsessed with growth. And for good reason. Greater wealth doesn’t just buy us nicer vacations and fancier gadgets. It also buys longer life spans, better nutrition, and lower infant mortality. It buys more time with family, and less time at work. It buys greater self-reported happiness. And as Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman has […]

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