Economic Human Rights (42): Some Facts About Welfare in the U.S.

Welfare – meaning the provision by the government of a minimum level of material wellbeing and social support for all citizens – is a strange thing in the U.S.: it’s not directed mainly at the poor, it’s underfunded, it seems to be compatible with a high poverty rate, and it’s not colorblind – at least not in its effects.

Take a look at the following facts (source):

  • In 2010, nearly half of Americans lived in a household that received direct government benefits. That’s up from 37.7% in 1998.
  • At the same time, government revenues have been declining: adjusted for inflation, federal tax revenue was the same in 2009 as it was 1997, even though the U.S. population grew by 37 million during that period. In 2011, the federal government took in $2.3 trillion in tax revenue, and spent the exact same amount on military, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid alone.
  • The share of entitlements like Social Security and Medicare going to the bottom fifth of households (based on income) has fallen from 54% in 1979 to 36% in 2007.
  • The result of all of this: nearly 1 in 6 Americans – and more than 1 in 4 blacks – still live in poverty. The unemployment rate in 2009 was around 10% – for young, uneducated African-American males it was even 48.5%.

None of this should lead to the conclusion that the U.S. welfare system is completely dysfunctional – unemployment insurance, for instance, has rescued millions of Americans from poverty during the last recession. What it should lead to is serious consideration of the possibility and desirability of a completely new system.

More posts in this series are here.

Economic Human Rights (41): Unemployment, a Cost-Benefit Analysis

Unemployment is a violation of an individual’s right to work. It stunts her creativity and diminishes her wellbeing, in a material, moral and psychological sense, in many cases even pushing her into poverty, ill health and depression.

For a person with no pre-existing health conditions, losing one’s job increased the chances of reporting a new health problem by 83 percent. Overall, the newly unemployed had a 54 percent chance of reporting fair or poor health. (source, source)

Unemployment is also self-perpetuating because it makes it harder to find a new job – employers prefer candidates who already have a job. In addition, it depresses wage levels, even decades after the end of a spell of unemployment.

Needless to say, these costs don’t affect only the unemployed themselves. Their families and children also suffer:

We find that a parental job loss increases the probability of children’s grade retention by 0.8 percentage points, or around 15 percent. After conditioning on child fixed effects, there is no evidence of significantly increased grade retention prior to the job loss, suggesting a causal link between the parental employment shock and children’s academic difficulties. These effects are concentrated among children whose parents have a high school education or less. (source)

And the ripple effect of unemployment covers the whole of society. Unemployment has a social cost: above and beyond the fiscal pressure – unemployment benefits have to be paid, either through increased taxes or cuts in other public services – it deprives society of valuable input and human ingenuity.

Still, all these costs should not blind us to the real benefits that unemployment can bring. And I’m not talking about those few individuals who are “liberated” from their mind numbing jobs and take the chance offered by unemployment to start a successful business doing something they always wanted to do but never had the chance or guts to do. Neither am I referring to kidults reveling in “funemployment”, staying with their parents well into their twenties or beyond, and taking the opportunity to prolong their childhood. Those are not the majority of the unemployed.

However, some among the majority may also find a silver lining. Maybe unemployment makes them less materialistic and more financially prudent; maybe some of them will use their free time to volunteer and educate themselves; society may become humbler and gentler; maybe concerns for social justice become more prevalent since the unemployed, ex-unemployed and their friends and families have become more conscious of the role of luck in life’s outcomes, as compared to the limited role of desert. Some health indicators may improve:

Interestingly, though high-stress events such as foreclosures and unemployment may hurt the health of those directly impacted, there’s some evidence that recessions have a positive impact on a nation’s health overall. In 2000, Christopher Ruhm, an economist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, found that a 1 percent rise in a state’s unemployment rate led to a 0.6 percent decrease in total mortality, looking at mortality changes in the United States between 1972 and 1991. … economic downturns could improve health through “declines in smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and overeating during recessions as people look for ways to save money.” (source)

Of course, there’s no way these benefits cancel out all of the costs. Unemployment is a scourge and a human rights violation, and capitalism doesn’t do itself any favors by maintaining and temporarily inflating its “industrial reserve army“.

More on the human cost of unemployment is here and here.

Economic Human Rights (40): How Do Poor People Live?

The poor tend to become a number, a statistic, an undifferentiated mass, especially here on this blog. Talk of the “bottom billion” and the one-dollar-a-day people only makes things worse. Of course, it’s important to know the numbers, if only to see how well we are doing in the struggle against poverty. But to actually know what we have to do, we need to know what poverty actually means to poor people. How do these people live? Which problems do they face? Who are they? None of this can be captured in numbers or statistics. Pure quantitative analysis doesn’t help. We need qualitative stories here, and these stories will necessarily differentiate between groups of people because poverty means different things to different people.

Keeping in mind the caveat that poverty is “multidimensional” and that it varies with the circumstances, is it possible to give a more or less general impression of the “lives of the poor”? There’s an interesting attempt here. Banerjee and Duflo analyzed survey data from 13 countries in order to distill a picture of the way people live on less than one dollar a day, of the choices they have and the limits and challenges they face.

The countries are Cote d’Ivoire, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Peru, South Africa, Tanzania, and Timor Leste. Obviously, the lives of the poor are very different in these different countries, and vary even for different groups within each country. Still, some general information can be extracted:

  • The number of adults (i.e. those over 18) living in a family ranges from about 2.5 to about 5, with a median of about 3, which suggests a family structure where it is common for adults to live with people they are not conjugally related to (parents, siblings, uncles, cousins, etc.). When every penny counts, it helps to spread the fixed costs of living (like housing) over a larger number of people. Poverty has consequences for family structure, and vice versa.
  • Poor families have more children living with them. The fact that there are a large number of children in these families does not necessarily imply high levels of fertility, as families often have multiple adult women.
  • The poor of the world are very young on average. Older people tend to be richer simply because they have had more time to accumulate resources.
  • Food typically represents from 56 to 78 percent of consumption expenses among rural households, and 56 to 74 percent in urban areas.
  • The poor consume on average slightly less than 1400 calories a day. This is about half of what the Indian government recommends for a man with moderate activity, or a woman with heavy physical activity. As a result, health is definitely a reason for concern. Among the poor adults in Udaipur, the average “body mass index” (that is, weight in kilograms divided by the square of the height in meters) is 17.8. Sixty-five percent of poor adult men and 40 percent of adult women have a body mass index below 18.5, the standard cutoff for being underweight. Eating more would improve their BMI and their health, and yet they choose to spend relatively large amounts on entertainment. Which just shows that the poor have the same desires as anyone else and choose their priorities accordingly.
  • The poor see themselves as having a significant amount of choice, and choose not to exercise it in the direction of spending more on food. The typical poor household in Udaipur could spend up to 30 percent more on food than it actually does, just based on what it spends on alcohol, tobacco, and festivals. Indeed, in most of the surveys the share spent on food is about the same for the poor and the extremely poor, suggesting that the extremely poor do not feel the need to purchase more calories. This conclusion echoes an old finding in the literature on nutrition: Even the extremely poor do not seem to be as hungry for additional calories as one might expect.
  • Tap water and electricity are extremely rare among the poor.
  • Many poor households have multiple occupations. They may operate their own one-man business, sometimes more than one, but do so with almost no productive assets. They also have jobs as laborers, often in agriculture. And they cultivate a piece of land they own. Yet, agriculture is not the mainstay of most of these households. Where do they find non-agricultural work? They migrate. The businesses they operate are very small, lacking economies of scale and without employment opportunities for people outside the family. That’s a vicious circle because it means that few people can find a job and are forced to start petty businesses themselves. This circle makes economies of scale very difficult.
  • The poor tend not to become too specialized, which has its costs. As short-term migrants, they have little chance of learning their jobs better, ending up in a job that suits their specific talents or being promoted. Even the non-agricultural businesses that the poor operate typically require relatively little specific skills. The reason for this lack of specialization is probably risk spreading. If the weather is bad and crop yields are low, people can move to another occupation.
  • The poor don’t save a lot, unsurprisingly. Some of it has to do with inadequate access to credit and insurance markets. Banks and insurers are unwilling to give access to the poor and saving at home is hard to do; it’s unsafe and the presence of money at home increases the temptation to spend (that’s true for all of us by the way).
  • In 12 of the 13 countries in the sample, with the exception of Cote d’Ivoire, at least 50 percent of both boys and girls aged 7 to 12 in extremely poor households are in school. Schooling doesn’t take a large bite from the family budget of the poor because children in poor households typically attend public schools or other schools that do not charge a fee.

Economic Human Rights (38): A Silly Argument Against the Right to Food

The right to food (art. 25 of the Universal Declaration i.a.) doesn’t get a good press. Only a handful believe that it’s comparable in importance to rights such as free speech or freedom of religion. This disdain surprises me. And it’s not just that it shows a failure to understand the interdependence of rights – none of our rights make any sense on an empty stomach. If you know that 6 million children under the age of five die of hunger every year there is at least a prima facie reason – although not a sufficient reason, I admit – to claim that there should be a human right to food.

The counter argument goes as follows: if we grant people a right to food, they will stop working and just watch television all day while the government gives them food. That will destroy both the economy and people’s character.

I think that’s really silly. Let’s make an analogy with an uncontroversial right, the right to free movement. This right doesn’t mean that the government should “give people movement”. That doesn’t make sense. People claiming that right don’t ask for the government to move them. What they ask is

  1. that the government doesn’t hinder their free movement (hence a legal prohibition on internal border controls, restricted zones etc.); and
  2. that the government helps people to acquire the capability to move freely if they don’t have that capability (hence assistance to people with disabilities and the construction of public highways).

The same is true for the right to food. This right doesn’t tell the government to give people food. All it demands is that the government doesn’t take away people’s food or people’s ability to acquire food (as it did in the case of Ukraine’s Holodomor), and that it helps people acquire the ability to get food. The latter may imply temporary food provision (or giving cash for food) to those in dire need, but this provision is aimed at capacity building, and should stop when people’s capabilities are restored.

A closely related discussion is the one about positive and negative rights. See here.

Economic Human Rights (37): Basic Income as an Alternative to the Welfare State

The welfare state is the name for a collection of different government policies and programs designed to help the poor. Those policies and programs may include healthcare benefits, unemployment benefits, old age pensions, child benefits, some types of education subsidies, aid to the disabled, food stamps, housing subsidies, minimum wage rules, collective bargaining rights etc.

The welfare state is criticized in a number of ways. I’ll just mention a few arguments against it, without going into much detail and without replying to them:

  • it creates dependency and destroys self-reliance, responsibility, effort and other virtues
  • it rewards the undeserving and promotes subsidized idleness
  • it violates property rights because the taxes necessary for funding welfare are a form of theft
  • it imposes slavery on the productive and the responsible because it forces them to work for the benefit of the lazy and the irresponsible
  • it destroys incentives for taxpayers to become productive
  • it’s self-destructive because it destroys the prosperity that it wants to redistribute (the destruction of incentives results in the destruction of prosperity), or because it renders poverty more attractive
  • it’s not sufficiently targeted to the most needy: wealthy families may get child benefits, and wealthy pensioners may get healthcare subsidies
  • it requires a heavy state bureaucracy that usurps the right to invade the privacy of potential welfare beneficiaries (in order to ascertain whether people deserve benefits: are people really unemployed or unemployable? does their health status merit health benefits? etc.)
  • it can be gamed and people may engage in welfare fraud.

Some of these criticisms are evidently more pertinent than others, but let’s not evaluate them one by one. If we assume that there’s some truth in some of them, then it may be worthwhile to look at some possible alternatives. People often propose non-state solutions such as private charity (enhanced and encouraged by way of tax policy, education etc.). An advantage of private charity is that it fosters solidarity, virtue and a sense of belonging. However, it’s also counter-cyclical in the sense that it’s least available when most necessary (e.g. during economic recessions). Moreover, it tends to be unreliable and unequal (it may not cover all the needs of all poor people all of the time).

Another possible alternative is to keep a system of state provision of welfare, but to radically alter the specifics of the system. For example, one could give people a guaranteed and unconditional basic income at a level high enough to cover basic needs. Every individual would receive the basic income whatever his or her predicament, current or future. It would be funded with tax revenues, and therefore wouldn’t be a reply to the theft and slavery criticisms of welfare, but those criticisms are weak anyway (because they imply that all state activity, including policing and infrastructure, are illegitimate). It would, however, be a strong reply to the privacy infringing aspects of the current welfare system. A basic income, since it’s unconditional, would not require intrusions into the private lives of citizens in order to ascertain whether they deserve a benefit or not. It would undo the complexity of many current programs and hence also remove the need for a large bureaucracy. And it would counter the charge of assisting the undeserving: although many undeserving would receive a basic income, few would complain about it since everyone would receive it. Welfare fraud also would obviously become impossible.

An added advantage of a basic income system of welfare would be that it allows people to take more risks. They know that they won’t be destitute if things don’t work out. More risk taking can be socially advantageous because it can result in more innovation, more productivity etc.

However, notwithstanding the set of advantages, a basic income system will probably not be a perfect substitute for existing programs. It’s questionable, for example, whether a basic income, even one that is set at the highest sustainable level, will be enough to cover certain catastrophic healthcare costs. In general, a basic income theory doesn’t take into consideration the fact that different people have different needs and abilities and therefore require different amounts of resources.

Economic Human Rights (35b): What’s So Funny About Charity?

I’ve stated before why I believe charity helps to prevent poverty, and why it’s better than government welfare, at least in principle. The welfare state, in my view, is a fallback option when charity fails (as it often does).

The usual argument against this view is that charity is bound to fail because it’s crowded out by the welfare state. People don’t and won’t assist others because they think that they already do enough by paying taxes, whatever the effectiveness or fairness of the tax system. The evidence for the occurrence of crowding out is, however, unclear, and that’s a “charitable” interpretation of the evidence.

Another criticism of charity is closer to the mark:

Charity is counter-cyclical. When the economy is booming and there’s less need, there’s also more capacity. When the [economy] is worse and there’s more need, donations dry up and there’s less capacity. That’s not a criticism of charities: It’s hardly their fault. And nor is it a criticism of the people who donate — or stop donating — to charities. When you’re worried about paying your mortgage, it’s harder to help other people pay theirs. But it’s a big part of why we need a robust, federal safety net that’s immune … from the ravages of the business cycle. (source)

Indeed, as the need for charity rises, the supply diminishes, and vice versa. That is why a theory of poverty alleviation that depends solely on charity is incomplete. However, implicit in this argument is that the welfare state is immune to the business cycle, which is obviously incorrect. A recession means a drop in tax revenues and a simultaneous increase in demand for welfare transfers (there are more unemployed etc.). Hence, a recession means a weakening of the capacity of the welfare system. That’s exactly the same mechanism that makes charity unreliable.

Fortunately, the welfare state can bridge over recessions by going into debt, something that few private charity donors will do. This means that a welfare state can keep its anti-poverty transfers going in times of increased demand for funds and decreased supply of funds.

More on charity here.

Economic Human Rights (35): A Right to Unemployment Insurance?

Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides a right to work, as well as a right to “free choice of employment and to just and favorable conditions of work”. That right protects us against slavery, forced labor, unfair wages, and unsafe working conditions. The same article offers a right “to protection against unemployment”. That clause can be interpreted in two ways:

  • it can mean that if we’re out of work through no choice of our own, we should get help to find work (either from the state or from our fellow citizens)
  • or it can mean that if we’re involuntarily unemployed, we should get some monetary compensation for the loss of salary or income and the financial stress that we suffer as a result.

It’s the latter interpretation that is made more explicit in another article, number 25, of the Declaration which mentions “the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control”.

So it seems we have a right to unemployment insurance or unemployment benefits. The obvious justification for this right is material wellbeing: the absence of poverty is also a right.

However, there are some other types of justification of unemployment insurance. Some call UI an “automatic stabilizer” in times of economic hardship: Keynes taught us that both unemployment and falling wages lower consumer demand and can lead to even greater unemployment. Stingy or absent unemployment benefits lower demand even more. In that view, which does sound plausible, unemployment insurance isn’t just a good in itself and for the individuals concerned (as well as for those who may someday suffer unemployment and who can suffer some amount of stress because of the risk), but is necessary for the periodic regeneration of capitalism and for the smoothing of the business cycle. Benefits are also efficiency enhancing because of another reason:

One of the possible advantages that is touted for more generous UI (including by Mike Konczal) is the idea that it allows for better job matching—people can wait to find the right long-term job opportunity instead of taking the first job that becomes available. (source)

It’s better to have people perform the jobs they prefer because they’re likely to be most efficient there. Hence, it’s better to give them more time to find the right job, and to give them unemployment benefits so that they have the time.

Others, however, call this right a foolish invention because it destroys incentives to work at the level of individuals, and reduces incentives to create wealth at the level of companies (because of the relatively high tax rates that come with the welfare state, that in turn comes with benefits such as unemployment insurance). It doesn’t enhance efficiency at all, on the contrary. But the evidence for this view is not so strong:

Evidence suggests that individuals do prolong their job search when they receive unemployment benefits, partly because they are looking for the best possible job. But the magnitude of this effect is likely to be small.

A recent study … compared lengths of unemployment among those eligible for unemployment insurance with those who were not eligible. Their statistical analysis suggests that extended benefits accounted for only four-tenths of 1 percentage point of the nearly 6 percentage point increase in the national unemployment rate over the last few years. (source)

Still others call the right to unemployment benefits a foolish invention, not because of reasons that have to do with overall economic efficiency, but because they believe that the unemployed have no one else to blame but themselves for their misfortune, and therefore can’t demand help from others. Those others can voluntarily decide to help the unemployed, in a spirit of charity that extends even to self-inflicted misfortune, but the unemployed don’t have a right based on moral concerns to demand such help. And indeed, there may be some logic to such a view: if we all believe strongly that we deserve what happens to us, we are likely to work hard, show discipline and self-control and hence achieve success. Conversely, those who think that the causes of their misfortune are always outside of their control, are not likely to invest much effort in their lives. However, morality and life are much more complicated than that. The best efforts can lead to disaster, and apathy can lead to success. People who are not the sole authors of their success can be required to help those who are not the sole authors of their misfortune.