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We’re unlikely to reduce the share of the U.S. population living in economic dependency under the current policy regime. So many aspects of tax law, regulation and aid programs are designed as if to perpetuate or perhaps even worsen the situation. I’ve discussed this topic before on Sacred Cow Chips in “Degrees of Poverty and the Social Safety Trap“, and “Minority Politics and the Redistributionist Honey Trap“.

Many supporters of aggressive anti-poverty efforts take umbrage at any suggestion that government aid might discourage the poor from engaging in productive activities. They imagine an implication that the poor are “lazy”, perfidious or otherwise undeserving of assistance. Whether that is a misunderstanding or merely rhetorical bite-back, the fact is that it is rational to respond to incentives and there is no shame in doing so. Unfortunately, many assistance programs contain incentive traps or income “cliffs” that discourage work effort. This applies to food stamps, rent subsidies, Obamacare subsidies, and many more of the 120+ federal aid programs and other state and local programs.

Here’s a new example from a research abstract posted at Marginal Revolution: The Medicaid expansion had very negative effects on labor force participation. The funding for Medicaid expansion at the state level was authorized by the Affordable Care Act (ACA) — aka Obamacare, but only about half the states went along with it. From the abstract:

I find a significant negative relationship between Medicaid expansion and labor force participation, in which expanding Medicaid is associated with 1.5 to 3 percentage point drop in labor force participation.

The direction of impact is hardly unique, and as Tyler Cowen notes at the link:

Work is good for most people, and it is even better for their future selves, and their future children too.

The negative impact of Obamacare is more massive than the estimate above might suggest. Veronique de Rugy at Reason.com discusses how “Federal Programs Keep People Poor“. While most of her article is about the negative impact of high marginal tax rates on the employment prospects of the poor, she also recalls an ugly CBO estimate of the ACA’s impact:

In 2014, the Congressional Budget Office—Congress’ official fiscal scorekeeper—revised its original estimate to report that because of the law, by 2024 the equivalent of 2.5 million Americans who were otherwise willing and able to work will have exited the labor force.

There are several different channels through which the negative effects of the ACA operate: Small employers are incented to limit their hiring and the hours of employees, and federal subsidies (and sometimes state benefits) are available to individuals only so long as they remain below certain income thresholds. Again, this is typical of many government aid programs (the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) being an exception). More from de Rugy:

When the government takes away a person’s benefits as his income goes up, it has the same effect as a direct tax. And remember, when you tax something, you usually get less of it. That means these programs can actually hinder income mobility: In order to continue receiving their government cash, individuals are forced to limit the amount they earn. Thus, they have an incentive not to try to climb the income ladder by putting in extra hours or signing up for job training and educational programs.

Mises Wire recently carried a reprint of an essay by the great Henry Hazlitt, “How To Cure Poverty“. The gist of Hazlitt’s argument is that government largess simply cannot create wealth for society, but only diminish it. The mere process of redistributing the current “pie” consumes resources, but that is minor compared to the future reduction in the size of the pie brought on by the terrible incentives inherent in income taxation and many government benefit programs:

The problem of curing poverty is difficult and two-sided. It is to mitigate the penalties of misfortune and failure without undermining the incentives to effort and success. … The way to cure poverty is … through … the adoption of a system of private property, freer trade, free markets, and free enterprise. It was largely because we adopted this system more fully than any other country that we became the most productive and hence the richest nation on the face of the globe. Through this system more has been done to wipe out poverty in the last two centuries than in all previous history.

Harvard professors Edward Glaeser and Andrei Schleifer have written about “The Curley Effect: The Economics of Shaping the Electorate“, which posits that redistributive policies that are harmful to constituents can be rewarding to politicians. The paper deals with policies that encourage emigration of affluent voters away from cities, but which nevertheless reward politicians by increasing the proportion of their political base in the remaining constituency. It seems to apply very well to many major cities in the U.S. However, it certainly applies more broadly, across states and nations, when affluent people and their capital are mobile while the less affluent are not, especially when benefits are at stake. It’s no secret that promises of benefits are often attractive to voters in the short run, even if they are harmful and unsustainable in the long run.

The welfare state appears to have helped to sustain many of the poor at an improved standard of living after accounting for benefits, or it has prevented them from falling into “deep poverty”. However, it hasn’t succeeded in lifting the poor out of dependency on the state. Pre-benefit poverty rates are about the same as they were the late 1960s. In addition, Christopher Jencks observes that the “Very Poor” have in fact become poorer. That’s discussed in his review of “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America” by Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer. Jencks presents statistics showing that those in the lowest two percentiles of the income distribution have suffered a fairly sharp decline in income since 1999. Many of these extremely poor individuals do not avail themselves of benefits for which they could qualify. In addition, the EITC requires earned income. A job loss is a wage loss and, if it goes on, a loss of EITC benefits. Unfortunately, work requirements are more difficult to meet in the presence of wage floors and other distortions imposed by heavy-handed regulation.

A guaranteed national income has become a hot topic recently. Michael Tanner weighs in on “The Pros and Cons…” of such a program. There are many things to like about the idea inasmuch as it could sweep away many of the wasteful programs piled upon each other over the years. It is possible to construct a sliding-scale guarantee that would retain positive incentives for all, as Milton Friedman demonstrated years ago with his negative income tax concept. However, as Tanner points out, there are many details to work out, and the benefits of the switch would depend upon the incentive structure built into the guarantee. As a political plaything, it could still be dangerous to the health of the economy and an impediment to income mobility. Don Boudreaux has registered objections to a guaranteed income, one of which is based on strengthening the wrongheaded argument that we derive all rights from government. Even more interesting is David Henderson’s take on a basic income guarantee. He finds that the budgetary impact of a $10,000 guarantee would equate to a 30% increase in government spending, and that assumes that it replaces all other assistance programs! Henderson also discusses the public choice aspects of income guarantees, as well as moral objections, and he concludes that there are strong reasons to reject the idea on libertarian grounds.

The economy is riddled with too many subsidies, penalties and bad incentives that distort the behavior of various groups. The well-to-do often benefit from subsidies that are every bit as distortionary as those inherent in many public assistance programs. They should all be swept away to restore a dynamic economy with the potential to lift even more out of poverty. There could be a role for a guaranteed income on the grounds that it is better than what we’ve got. But we should recall the words of Hazlitt, who reminded us that we’ve come so far on the strength of property rights, private initiative, and free trade. Left unfettered, those things can take us much farther than the ugly pairing of beneficence and coercion of the government behemoth.