The left and Cash Transfers to the Poor: A Rejoinder to Slander

This seems so elementary that it should not have to be pointed out. Lately it has not been in my nature to get in the way of an over the top, gross generalization founded on spurious sampling techniques paired with the terrorism of gotcha journalism, however, today I am feeling frisky.

Some Guy (SG) has a blog post up about how lefties hate direct cash transfers to the poor. I can’t make heads or tails of this claim including the two random citations of lefties provided: one an individual the other a think tank (now there is rigour if I ever saw it). Unfortunately even the random citations provided were poor choice because in the one case SG failed to read the article—I suspect he is hoping you will too.

But alas we all now know that economists are to be debated not trusted. Inter alia, Duncan Cameron argued for an increase in direct cash transfers to the working, unemployed and non working poor:

“By any measure, minimum wages, welfare payments, unemployment assistance have all declined since at least the inflationary period of the 1970s. All these programs need dramatic improvements.”

There is then some irony that SG should have given his post the title: “An overlooked anti-poverty strategy: giving money to poor people.” Seemingly for SG, an increase in the cash benefits to the poor, working poor and unemployed do not quality as “giving money to the poor” (I will explain why below). And unintended irony of all irony the research reported on SG”s blog on minimum wages concludes that increases in minimum wages under a 40-45% of an average hourly wages threshold has little to a positive effect on employment. Although having an indeterminate effect on poverty.

Hence, I suppose the need for direct cash transfers of one form or another. Like uhm maybe an increase in cash benefits for welfare and EI recipients as Duncan argued? No No No No! Shrieked the vanilla economist! I will explain why further on.

In order to solve this murder mystery we will have to return to the scene of the crime. What seems to have stuck in the quick of SG was this offending remark by Duncan on EITCs as a generalized strategy for poverty reduction:

“Not even the Toronto Star editorial board seems to have noticed the problem is much wider than the working poor, and the solution greater than an earned income tax credit — aka a handout — so that lousy employers can continue to pay poverty wages.”

Clearly EITCs are SG’s preferred poverty reduction strategy—no matter that EITC’s do not have robust evidence to support the claim that they reduce poverty. In the US for example, where the program is much more robust than in Canada, the maximum benefit is around 2,700$ per year for a family with two children and around 500$ for a family without kids. And here is the kicker the EITC is phased out fully at 37,000$ for a two child two working parent family and 24,000$ for two individual no children family. I find some irony in the fact that my middle class baby manual tells me that children cost around 10,000$ a year. Therefore the idea that a 1,300$ (max) a year per child EITC in the US could be held up as major strategy to combat poverty is well simply farcical—albeit better than a kick in the ass I suppose. In any case, this is clearly where the unintended irony of a virgin gives way to self-satirisation—hardly edifying.

But the more important question is why would an economist be flogging EITCs as (a) the only form direct cash transfers should take; and (b), at the same time misrepresent the scheme as a poverty reduction scheme? The second is easier (i.e., more simple) to explain than the first. Classic misdirection—the first learned trick of magicians, pick pockets and con-artists (all of which I have infinite respect for outside of the academy).

However, the first question is more painfully answered. You see back in some early graduate seminar vanilla economists (well actually all economists because all economists have to be able to converse with vanilla economists but the reverse is not true—although some vanilla economist are capable of cross paradigm conversations) are given a tutorial on welfare policy analysis. The problem is that traditional cash transfers from say welfare or EI create an incentive for poor people not to work. All things being equal, why work if your welfare benefits will be clawed back and your earned income will be taxed? The basic thrust of the EITC is that it makes it so that work pays. And this is the real thrust of the EITC—making sure the incentive structure is designed so that the poor have an incentive to work and not layabout on the dole. It is about getting people off of welfare—which may or may not be a good thing—but it is not about poverty alleviation.

As an aside it was this I think Duncan was reacting to. Somewhat perversely, EITC’s act as a subsidy to minimum wage employers in two ways. On the one hand, they increase the labour supply of minimum wage workers thereby ensuring increased slack in their labour markets and thus downward pressure on average minimum wages. And on the other hand, they provide a subsidy to employers because the tax credit mitigates workers demand for higher wages. Perhaps this is why the program enjoys such bi-partisan support in the US.

In sum, EITCs are politically palatable because they “reward hard work” and shun the welfare system while giving the appearance of a concern about poverty. they keep in tact and rejuvenate that old Victorian separation between deserving and undeserving poor (never mind that the welfare system already reproduces this logic through extensive monitoring and what has been over the last twenty years increasing paltry benefit rates with increasingly restrictive qualification criteria).  They are, if taken in isolation as the only tool, a politically expedient, ideologically driven, and an ineffective poverty alleviation strategy sometimes garbed up in progressive rhetoric.

I welcome an honest conversation about a robust poverty alleviation strategy for Canada.  If only vanilla economists would try to meaningfully participate by jettisoning their predetermined policy preferences and erroneous characterizations of other members of the policy community. I for one am ready for a new conversation on poverty reduction in which everything is on the table–and not just facile ideological preferences masquerading as the new true social science.

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