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.
I think of myself as a political moderate, conservative on fiscal matters and somewhat liberal on social issues. My blog posts are usually based on a recent newspaper article or think tank study presenting one side or the other of an important issue in an intelligent way. In other words, I seldom bother to refute what I consider to be dumb ideas. I assume that they will eventually die of their own dead weight. My favorite approach is to respond to an attractive article with which I may have a somewhat different point of view. Today’s New York Times has such an article, “Many Feel American Dream is Out of Reach, Poll Shows,” pointing out that 64% of a NYT Poll respondents think that it is possible to start out poor and become rich (see above chart), which opinion has dropped from 72% in 2009. The Poll also reports that:
81% of Americans have confidence in their own local banks whereas only 41% have confidence in Wall Street bankers and brokers.
52% think the economic system in the U.S. is basically fair, since all Americans have a chance to succeed, whereas 45% think it is unfair.
54% of Americans think that over-regulation of the economy, which interferes with economic growth, is a bigger problem than under-regulation, which may create an unequal distribution of wealth.
For almost two-thirds of Americans to be upbeat about the American Dream, after six or seven years of recession and slow recovery is to me a very positive sign. After a severe financial crisis, it is not at all surprising that “main street” bankers have a much higher favorability rating than “Wall Street” bankers.
Several months ago I reported on a survey taken by the progressive Global Strategy Group showing that 80% of voters consider economic growth more important than income inequality.
Both today’s NYT Poll and the previous GSG Survey are saying loud and clear that Americans put a high premium on economic growth and this is where our national leaders should be concentrating their time and energy. The new Republican majority in Congress has an almost historic opportunity to get this right. Let’s hope they don’t blow it!
Americans are currently having a lengthy discussion about income and wealth inequality. A contribution by the Manhattan Institute’s Diana Furchtgott-Roth, “The Myth of Increasing Income Inequality”, points out, for example, that
The lowest 20% income quintile only has 1.7 persons per family unit while the highest quintile has 3.1 persons per family unit.
In 1970, 18% of households had only one person as compared with 27% of households in 2012.
In 1970 62% of women were married compared with 52% of women in 2012.
54% of all Americans say that taxes should be raised on the wealthy and corporations in order to expand programs for the poor.
Only 35% believe that lowering taxes on the wealthy to encourage investment and economic growth would be a better approach.
Unfavorable opinions of the Tea Party have increased from 25% in 2010 to 49% today.
The public has more confidence in Democrat’s handling of healthcare by a 45% to 37% margin.
Just 42% to 38% favor Republicans in handling the economy.
My conclusion from all of this data is that fiscal conservatives need to do a much better job of showing sympathy and concern for those who are struggling at the lower ends of the income scale. Success in implementing the sound policies which are needed to turn things around depends on accomplishing this!
There has been a lot of public attention given to these topics recently. Our stagnant economy since the end of the recession almost five years ago has meant high levels of unemployment and underemployment which naturally causes widespread discontent. The 50th anniversary of President Johnson declaring War on Poverty provides an opportunity to look back and evaluate its success.
A very good summary of where we stand on poverty was given two years ago by Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield of the Heritage Foundation: “Understanding Poverty in the United States: Surprising Facts about America’s Poor”. The authors used 2010 census data for their study. Poverty was defined to be a cash income of $22,314 or less for a family of four in 2010 (which increased to $23,550 in 2013). They pointed out, for example, that “96% of poor parents stated that their children were never hungry at any time during the year because they could not afford food.” The chart below shows that poor households, in general, have many of the common amenities. In other words, the close to $1 trillion spent per year ($871 billion in 2010) by federal and state governments on means tested assistance for the poor has largely eliminated destitute poverty in the U.S. Further progress will require successfully addressing both the collapse of marriage and the lack of parental work in low-income communities. These very difficult problems can only be addressed with a long term educational effort to turn poor children into productive citizens.
Conclusion: the War on Poverty has had reasonable success at huge cost and further gains will be more expensive and more drawn out over time. We’ve already started on this second phase by emphasizing early childhood education and so the focus now should be to implement this new direction.
Next step: it’s now time to direct our serious attention to the issues of inequality and mobility. That will be the subject of my next post!
As the Wall Street Journal reported several days ago, “Economic Mobility Is the New Flashpoint”. “Both parties agree the opportunity gap is widening, but the proposed solutions are starkly different.” The Democrats want to increase the minimum wage, extend unemployment benefits, and expand access to college. The Republicans suggest a whole potpourri of approaches such as reforming welfare (including food stamps), extending school choice, cutting taxes, and relaxing regulations on new businesses.
A look at the latest jobs report from the Labor Department should provide the focus which Congress needs to figure out how to increase economic opportunity. Although the unemployment rate dropped substantially to 6.7% from 7.0% at the beginning of December, only 74,000 new jobs were created in December. The explanation is that 347,000 left the labor force last month. The labor force participation rate, the share of the U.S. working-age population employed, age 16 and over, has dropped from 64.5% in 2000, to just under 63% at the beginning of 2008 to near a post-recession low of 58.6% last month (see chart below). In other words, Congress should be totally focused on speeding up economic growth in order to create more jobs. Since new businesses create the most new jobs, we should indeed relax as many regulations as possible which impede entrepreneurship. We should lower the corporate tax rate from its very high current value of 35% to get American multinational companies to bring their trillions of overseas profits back home for reinvestment in the U.S. Moving to a national consumption tax (see the Graetz Plan discussion in my January 7 post), could mean dropping the corporate tax rate to as low as 15%.
Isn’t is obvious that the best thing we can do to give low income people an opportunity to rise up the economic ladder is to just give them a job in the first place? If they’re ambitious they’ll take any opportunity they can get and run with it!