My blog addresses the three main economic and fiscal issues facing the U.S. today: slow growth, economic inequality and massive debt. Today I focus on inequality by referring to a recent article by the Manhattan Institute’s Scott Winship, “Up: Expanding Opportunity in America.” Mr. Winship observes that there has been little change in upward mobility over the past three generations. Furthermore the U.S. has upward earnings mobility rates quite comparable to Canada and the Scandinavian countries, which are generally regarded as having strong economies. Nevertheless he makes several suggestions for attempting to boost upward mobility in the U.S. as follows:
Proposal 1: Wage War on Immobility through an Opportunity, Evidence and Innovation Office and an Opportunity Advisory Commission. OEIO would fund and evaluate an array of demonstration projects at the state and local levels. It would consolidate many already existing programs and have a budget of $20 billion per year.
Proposal 3. Block-Grant Means Tested Programs and Send Them Out to the States. Such a proposal has recently been made by the House Budget Committee.
Proposal 4.Encourage Employment through Work Subsidies. This is already being done with the Earned Income Tax Credit.
Proposal 5.Encourage Delayed and Planned Childbearing through Tax Incentives. The idea is to promote marriage by expanding the current Child Tax Credit of $1000 per child for single parents to perhaps $4000 per child for married parents, but for low-income families only.
Proposal 6.Reform the Social Security Disability Insurance Program. The share of adults age 25 to 64 receiving SSDI benefits has tripled from 1.6% in 1970 to 5% in 2010. Reform of this program would put many able-bodied men and women back to work and save lots of money, some of which could be used to fund the above programs.
Conclusion: Increasing upward mobility is one very good way to combat economic inequality. Mr Winship provides an excellent discussion of several new as well as already established ways of accomplishing this goal.
The Trust Fund for Social Security Disability Insurance will run out of money by the end of 2016. If no changes are made, all SSDI benefits will have to be reduced to 81% of scheduled benefits after that. Congress must act to avoid this outcome. The easiest fix would be to merge SSDI into the larger Social Security program in which case both SSDI and SSI would run out of money about 2033. But as the Manhattan Institute’s Scott Winship points out in National Affairs, “How to Fix Disability Insurance,” “the looming insolvency of the SSDI Trust Fund offers a rare opportunity to fundamentally reform SSDI” to better target assistance to those with debilitating impairments who truly need this support. The share of adults age 25 to 64 receiving SSDI benefits has tripled from 1.6% to 5% between 1970 and 2010 during a time when a shift from manufacturing, agriculture and mining to service work has reduced physical demands on workers.
Mr. Winship suggests the following reforms be implemented in the SSDI program:
Raise the 1.8% (out of the total 12.4% of the payroll tax going to SS) going to SSDI slightly to solve the immediate problem.
Expand the support options available to able-bodied men and women who can work, at least for a significant number of hours.
Reduce the number of people applying for benefits. For example, by increasing employer incentives for taking stricter safety measures, accommodating and rehabilitating those who become disabled and making greater use of claims management.
Use a stricter definition of disability. For example, mental and musculoskeletal conditions may be amenable to treatment.
Make it less attractive and more difficult to receive benefits for those who, while impaired, are able to work. Conditions likely to improve would be automatically subject to review after a short period of time.
Facilitate work among those with serious impairments who would still like to work. The point here is to make sure they benefit from working without feeling threatened with possible termination of benefits.
The point is that there are many practical steps which can be taken to make SSDI more cost efficient while preserving it for those who truly need it. This is a good example of the sort of changes that need to be made in all entitlement programs to shore them up for future generations by bringing their huge costs under control.
In the national elections this year four states: Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota raised their state minimum wage rates above the national rate of $7.25 per hour and, at the same time, elected Republicans to the U.S. Senate, in three cases replacing Democratic incumbents. Does this represent contradictory behavior by the voters? The American Enterprise Institute’s James Pethokoukis recently reported (see above) that the U.S. has the third highest rate of billionaire entrepreneurs behind only Hong Kong and Israel, as well as by far the most billionaires over all. These are the high-impact innovators like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg and the Google Guys.
These observations are put in context by the Manhattan Institute’s Scott Winship who recently reported that “Inequality Does Not Reduce Prosperity.” Here is a summary of his findings:
Across the developed world, countries with more inequality tend to have higher living standards.
Larger increases in inequality correspond with sharper rises in living standards for the middle class and poor alike.
In developed nations, greater inequality tends to accompany stronger economic growth.
American income inequality below the top 1 percent is of the same magnitude as that of our rich-country peers in continental Europe and the Anglosphere.
In the English-speaking world, income concentration at the top is higher than in most of continental Europe; in the U.S., income concentration is higher than in the rest of the Anglosphere.
With the exception of a few small countries with special situations, America’s middle class enjoys living standards as high as, or higher than, any other nation.
America’s poor have higher living standards than their counterparts across much of Europe and the Anglosphere.
Conclusion: Americans are fair-minded and would like to help the working poor do better. But Americans also appreciate the value of innovation and entrepreneurship. When there is a tradeoff between increasing prosperity and reducing inequality, greater prosperity comes first.