Friday, June 11, 2010

Another Reason Why Welfare Is Economically Destructive

I'm normally not a big fan of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development since it is an international bureaucracy that persecutes low-tax jurisdictions. But the economists at the OECD sometimes do good work (the same can be said of the IMF and World Bank, not that this justifies taxpayers subsidies for any international bureaucracy). Here's a good example. While researching tax rates in different nations, I came across this description of how welfare programs and other income-redistribution schemes result in punitively-high implicit tax rates on productive behavior for low-income people. The result, of course, is that many people are discouraged from working and lured into lives of dependency. The article is not recent, so the specific examples may no longer be accurate, but the economic analysis is spot on and still applies. The economic damage described in the article, by the way, is in addition to the harm caused by high explicit tax rates on taxpayers who finance the income redistribution and the harm caused by government spending diverting resources from the productive sector of the economy.

Another rather curious situation which does not show up when studying headline rates is that low earners can find themselves confronted with very high marginal tax rates, in some rare cases exceeding 100%. The reason for this is that lower earners not only pay more tax when their income goes up, but in many cases they lose part of their means-tested tax relief, subsidies and benefits as well. The loss of this income acts as an "implicit" tax at the margin. The rational response of workers who find themselves in this situation is to reduce the number of hours they work. Their gross wage would of course be lower if they did, but in return they would pay less tax and receive more means-tested subsidies and benefits. As a result, their net disposable income would increase despite putting in fewer hours. This type of situation occurs to varying degrees in different OECD countries, depending on the peculiarities of various social protection programmes. Take the example of an unemployed couple with two young children. Suppose that after five years' unemployment, one of them takes up a lowly paid job. In Finland or Sweden net income in and out of work would be the same in that case, since each unit of income earned is cancelled out by a unit of benefits foregone once employment is taken up. In other words, there is an implicit tax rate of 100%. In the case of Denmark and the Czech Republic, the implicit rate in a similar case would be almost 100%, and in Germany and the United Kingdom it would be around 80%. In France and the United States the implicit rate would be about 50%, since half the increase in earnings is wiped out by a loss of benefits. In Japan, the implicit tax actually exceeds 140%, meaning our one-earner couple would be worse off with the new job than without it. What's more, they may have to be wary when it comes to staying in the job itself, since small wage increases can expose low-wage earners to high implicit tax rates as their means-tested benefits get cut further.

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