The Causes of Poverty (72): How Unemployment and the Incentive Theory Aggravate Poverty

Not all poor people are unemployed. Even in developed countries some of the poor are “working poor“, i.e. people who have an income that is below the poverty line. Hence, if some who work for a living can’t make ends meet, it’s obvious that the unemployed are even more at risk of being poor. At best, the latter only have a temporary replacement income in the form of unemployment benefits. This income is often lower than even the lowest wage income, and in most countries it’s also limited in time. Hence, poverty is the likely result of unemployment, even in wealthy countries.

To some extent, this result is intentional: governments want to “incentivize” people and “nudge” them into the labor market. High unemployment benefits that aren’t limited in time – combined with the fact that many jobs don’t pay enough to avoid poverty – may trap some people in unemployment. Low and limited unemployment benefits, on the other hand, invoke the horror of poverty which in turn may force people to look for work.

It’s obvious why many unemployed people are poor – their incomes are just too low, and intentionally so. But why are poor people unemployed? The incentive theory tells us that poor people shouldn’t be unemployed. The horror of poverty should drive them out of unemployment. While some people are probably “incentivized” in this way, this is not something that will work for all the unemployed poor. It will only work for all the unemployed poor if jobs are abundant, and indeed that’s what the incentive theory assumes. Of course, this assumption is wrong. There’s something called the natural rate of unemployment. Even in the best of economic circumstances, there’s always some level of involuntary unemployment, and during recessions, this level is higher than normal. During a recession (starting from 2008 in this case) more poor people than normal indicate that their unemployment is due to their “inability to find a job”.

So, there are no conceivable incentives that will push all unemployed poor into the workforce, not even at the best of times.

Notice how the inability to find a job is just one reason among many, and definitely not the most important reason why poor people don’t work. Choice (“home or family reasons”) is another reason. And that’s one which can sometimes be influenced by incentives. However, the reason that’s cited most frequently, namely “sickness or disability” cannot. The horror of poverty will not force you into employment if you can’t work for health reasons. Hence, even if we assume, unrealistically, that there is an abundance of jobs and no natural rate of unemployment, it’s unrealistic to assume that all poor unemployed people will one day join the workforce.

This has implications for the incentive theory. If you put too much emphasis on incentives, you’re likely to put unemployment benefits at a very low level with a strict time limit. After all, the closer the horizon of poverty, the more likely that people will act and look for a job. However, if there are not enough jobs or if people have other reasons why they won’t work, then they won’t work. And if unemployment benefits are stingy, then these people will become poor. Incentives don’t always work as intended. Sometimes they may even cause poverty.

Now, I do agree that work is important and that we should therefore try to get as many people in jobs as we can (and, by the way, improve the quality of those jobs; that’s also in the book). Not only because working people normally – although not always – are less at risk of being poor, but also because work is important in human flourishing. I also agree that incentives can play a role in getting people to find work, and that the specter of poverty can be used as an incentive. However, we should be careful with this particular incentive. It may work sometimes, but often it doesn’t.

More posts in this series are here.

Migration and Human Rights (36): The Social Security Argument Against Open Borders

If there’s one Milton Friedman quote that’s repeated far too often it’s the following: “You cannot simultaneously have free immigration and a welfare state”. The income of relatively rich people in many poor countries pales in comparison to what the poor, unemployed, sick, young and elderly in rich countries get from welfare and social security transfers. Hence, the argument goes, opening borders and eliminating immigration restrictions would cause massive flows of people to those rich countries. Perhaps some of these people would come in the hope of finding a good job, but at the same time they have the certainty that, if they fail, they will enjoy generous social protection. And all the rest will come just for the benefits.

The problem, some say, is that rich countries can’t afford large increases in the numbers of welfare beneficiaries, and that they therefore must limit immigration. Open borders are only feasible when global poverty has been solved and income levels are more or less comparable across countries. Or, when rich countries would decide, unrealistically, to eliminate their welfare systems or at least coldheartedly decide to exclude all immigrants from welfare.

However, immigrants in the U.S. use welfare at lower rates than natives and have higher rates of labor force participation. In the U.K., immigrants represent about 13% of all workers, but only 7% percent of unemployment benefits (source).

Anyway, even if we assume that open borders will be a net negative for western welfare systems, there’s no need to limit the options to the stark choice between welfare and open borders. We could, for example, give immigrants access to labor markets but only limited access to unemployment benefits, or we could delay their benefits, demanding that they first contribute to the system during a number of years (something which might actually strengthen the system). However, we’d have to be careful and not create inequality, discrimination and a class society.

Or we could decide to grant immigrants full access to welfare because we believe that global inequality should be reduced. Access to welfare would then be a kind a development aid.

And, finally, it’s possible to view matters from an entirely different angle. Large chunks of welfare transfers go to the elderly. Given the demographic evolutions in many rich countries, it may be that immigration will be the only way for aging countries to sustain their welfare states.

Migration and Human Rights (35): The Economic Benefits of Immigration, Ctd.

Immigration is supposed to be bad for the economic wellbeing of (parts of) the native population (a claim that’s based on fears about unfair labor competition pushing down wages or pushing natives out of work, and about burdens on social safety nets resulting from so-called “welfare tourism”).

More open borders would be a good thing for the wellbeing of potential immigrants. But it would also be a good thing for the natives of the destination countries: it’s not just that immigration fails to harm the native population, but it actually provides some benefits. And those benefits exist even when we don’t limit immigration to high-skill immigration. That means that immigration restrictions can hurt the destination country.

How does immigration benefit the host country?

  • First, low skilled immigrants allow relatively low-skilled native workers to move to higher skilled or more specialized positions, for example as supervisors of the new immigrant workers. And those positions yield higher incomes.
  • Secondly, low skilled immigrants make it possible for natives to spend less time on non-paid, low-skilled activities that they can outsource. As a result, the latter can spend more time on paid activities, which increases their income. And even if they don’t (choose to) increase their income they probably increase their wellbeing.
  • Thirdly, immigrants produce tax revenues which contribute to social safety nets that benefit everyone.
  • And finally, immigrants consume, which creates higher economic growth which in turn benefits everyone. And when we legalize immigrants, they are likely to earn more, pay more taxes and invest, which will increase the productivity of the host economy, again to everyone’s benefit.

There’s some additional evidence in favor of these claims here. In short, this is what it says:

The effects of immigration on the total output and income of the U.S. economy can be studied by comparing output per worker and employment in states that have had large immigrant inflows with data from states that have few new foreign-born workers. Statistical analysis of state-level data shows that immigrants expand the economy’s productive capacity by stimulating investment and promoting specialization. This produces efficiency gains and boosts income per worker. At the same time, evidence is scant that immigrants diminish the employment opportunities of U.S.-born workers.

The anti-immigration claim that immigrant labor competition harms native workers, especially the low-skilled ones, is easily refuted by the simple fact that

U.S.-born workers and immigrants tend to take different occupations. Among less-educated workers, those born in the United States tend to have jobs in manufacturing or mining, while immigrants tend to have jobs in personal services and agriculture. Among more-educated workers, those born in the United States tend to work as managers, teachers, and nurses, while immigrants tend to work as engineers, scientists, and doctors. Second, within industries and specific businesses, immigrants and U.S.-born workers tend to specialize in different job tasks. Because those born in the United States have relatively better English language skills, they tend to specialize in communication tasks. Immigrants tend to specialize in other tasks. (source)

The role of language provides an example of how immigration allows native workers to move to higher skilled or more specialized positions:

in states where immigration has been heavy, U.S.-born workers with less education … have shifted toward more communication-intensive jobs. Figure 3 [below] shows exactly this. The share of immigrants among the less educated is strongly correlated with the extent of U.S.-born worker specialization in communication tasks. Each point in the graph represents a U.S. state in 2005. In states with a heavy concentration of less-educated immigrants, U.S.-born workers have migrated toward more communication-intensive occupations. Those jobs pay higher wages than manual jobs, so such a mechanism has stimulated the productivity of workers born in the United States and generated new employment opportunities. (source)

Therefore, immigration pushes up the income of native workers.

To better understand this mechanism, it is useful to consider the following hypothetical illustration. As young immigrants with low schooling levels take manually intensive construction jobs, the construction companies that employ them have opportunities to expand. This increases the demand for construction supervisors, coordinators, designers, and so on. Those are occupations with greater communication intensity and are typically staffed by U.S.-born workers who have moved away from manual construction jobs. (source)

Of course, there are bound to be some distribution effects, which means that there will be natives who benefit and other natives who don’t and who may even be harmed by immigration. However, it’s the complete picture that counts.