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What else can the government do for America’s poor?

by Adam Millsap on October 30, 2016

in Economic Growth, Economic Policy, Public Choice

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.

History

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)

poverty-rate-1965-72

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.

census-poverty-rate-time-series-2015

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

poverty-rate-time-series

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%).

us-county-poverty-map

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).

real-expend-per-capita-on-poverty-programs

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).

expend-per-cap-non-medicaid-pov-programs

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.

  • WRD

    Wouldn’t the county-level map be more informative if it was weighted by population?

    We don’t care that areas are poor…we care that people are poor. And more people live in Baltimore than in Somerset, yet the map makes those places look much worse.

    This is Easterly’s point. His family was poor and in West Virginia, but now he’s rich and in New York.

    • Adam

      That would be an interesting and useful map. I have not seen one.

      I agree with you that we care about people, not places but I think this figure still serves a purpose. It is useful to know where the poor areas are, especially if you believe that a person’s surroundings affect their lives.

      Cities do have a lot of low-income people but I don’t think the urban poor are as isolated as the rural poor. In fact, many people move to cities to improve their economic opportunities.

      Poor people in cities see and interact with middle and upper-middle class people on a relatively regular basis compared to the poor in a place such as Appalachia, and this can affect their lives in a variety of ways, many of which are positive.

      Many people know that poverty is not equally distributed throughout the U.S. but not everyone has seen a map like this one that shows where the poorest areas are, and thus many–but not all, or perhaps even most–of the poorest people live. I thought these readers would find it interesting.

      Thanks for reading and your comment.

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