Tag: poverty

Costa Rica’s Growth Paradox

Can a country enjoy a relatively high growth rate for a quarter of a century and still be unable to reduce its poverty rate? That’s the case of my homeland, Costa Rica, which happens to have a critical presidential election on February 2.

For over 25 years Costa Rica’s growth rate has averaged 4.7 percent a year – one of the highest in Latin America – and yet the country’s poverty rate has been stuck at around 20 percent since 1994. Even worse, Costa Rica is one out of only three Latin American countries where inequality has risen since 2000.

Today, I’ve published a study looking at some of the causes. Even though Costa Rica has undergone a substantial liberalization process since the mid-eighties, the country’s economic model is still in significant ways based on a mercantilist system that is biased in favor of certain sectors of the economy at the expense of the poor. You can read the paper here.

Inflation and Injustice

More than a few places in this world people are trying to better themselves by saving money. Many people without access to formal financial services (or awareness of their benefits) are trying to amass capital by squirreling away cash. If wariness and luck prevent that money from being stolen, their nest-eggs might provide life-saving health care, seed capital for businesses, the means to move, education for children, and numerous other enhancements to poor people’s well-being. I say good for them. But there are people out there who don’t care if government policy stands in the way.

Unknown to many cash-hoarders—unsophisticated investors who should have our sympathy—official government policy in many countries is to inflate the currency. Under stable conditions, such policies might reduce the value of the existing stock of money at a rate of about 2% per year.

That is a boon to governments, of course, which are typically debtors. The policy quietly reduces real government debt by 2% annually without need of raising official taxes. And whether they spend the money themselves or infuse their banking sectors with liquidity, governments use monetary policy to curry favor with important political constituencies, thus solidifying power.

An Alleged Decline in Economic Mobility and Arthur Brooks’s ‘47 Percent Solution’

A Wall Street Journal article by Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, urges presidential candidate Mitt Romney to acknowledge two “simple facts” about income inequality. One is that “low-income Americans are struggling,” which is surely true by definition. The second is that “economic opportunity is declining.” The author scolds the Republican convention for being too cheerful about the facts, as though Romney never mentioned shrinking median income, or high poverty and unemployment.

That second “simple fact” (declining opportunity) is not simple and not a fact. When Mr. Brooks asserts that opportunity is declining, he means “mobility” supposedly declined before 2006 according to one source—a 12-page brief by Katharine Bradbury of the Boston Fed.   But “mobility” is not at all the same as “opportunity,” because studies of this sort treat downward mobility the same as upward mobility. Bradbury is troubled by people making fewer big leaps from one fifth (quintile) to another, which Mr. Brooks likewise defines as declining opportunity; yet her data cannot distinguish ups from downs.

What is ostensibly being measured is the percentage of people in each fifth (quintile) of the income distribution who spend five or six years out of 10 in either the “same or adjacent” quintile. Bradbury compares three 10-year periods: 1976 to 1986, 1986 to 1996, and 1996 to 2006 and finds 27.4 percent remained in the poorest quintile during the earliest period and 25.9 percent in the most recent 10 years.  Since that suggests increasing mobility for the poor, she switches to emphasizing how many remained in either the same “or adjacent” quintile. This permits Bradbury to argue that those in the poorest or richest quintiles “did not move very far.”

Switching to “adjacent” quintiles means anyone in the top or bottom quintile would have to leap all the way to the middle to be counted as having moved at all. Since those at the bottom or top can only move in one direction, Bradbury therefore finds (of course) that for “those in the poorest or richest quintile… mobility is quite low.” People in other quintiles can move either up or down, so their “mobility” appears higher by this peculiar definition, particularly during severe recessions.

It is unsurprising that there was greater movement (up and down) between adjacent income groups in 1976-86, since that period included nasty inflationary recessions in 1980-82, followed by four years of 4.8 percent economic growth. The 1986-96 period, by contrast,  experienced a barely measurable slump in 1991, while 1996-2006 included the exhilarating tech boom of 1997-2000 and the perilous housing boom of 2004-2006. When the economy is rising steadily there is less risk of falling to a lower quintile, hence less movement (aka “mobility”). Since Brooks and Bradbury define income  stability as “declining opportunity,” they would presumably define 1929-33 or 2008-2009 as periods of rising opportunity.

A more serious study of income mobility by Treasury economists Gerald Auten and Geoffery Gee in the June 2009 National Tax Journal found,  “considerable income mobility in the U.S. economy over the 1987–1996 and 1996–2005 periods. Consistent with prior mobility studies, the data show that over half of taxpayers moved to a different income quintile and that roughly half of taxpayers who began in the bottom income quintile moved up to a higher income group by the end of each period. By contrast, those with the very highest incomes in the base year [the top 1 percent] were more likely to drop to a lower income group and the median real income of these taxpayers declined in each period. Economic growth resulted in rising incomes for most taxpayers over both time periods.” The largest percentage increases in real incomes were for those initially in the lowest income groups, while the most dramatic downward mobility was among those who had briefly occupied the top 1 percent.  This evidence is consistent with my own work showing that rising income shares for the top 1 percent have been associated with falling poverty rates and vice-versa.

New Video Shows the War on Poverty Is a Failure

The Center for Freedom and Prosperity has released another “Economics 101” video, and this one has a very powerful message about the federal government’s so-called War on Poverty.

As explained by Hadley Heath of the Independent Women’s Forum, the various income redistribution schemes being imposed by Washington are bad for taxpayers – and bad for poor people.

The video has a plethora of useful information, but the data on the poverty rate is particularly compelling. Prior to the War on Poverty, the United States was getting more prosperous with each passing year and there were dramatic reductions in the level of destitution.

But once the federal government got involved in the mid-1960s, the good news evaporated. Indeed, the poverty rate has basically stagnated for the past 40-plus years, usually hovering around 13 percent depending on economic conditions.

Another remarkable finding in the video is that poor people in America rarely suffer from material deprivation. Indeed, they have wide access to consumer goods that used to be considered luxuries - and they also have more housing space than the average European (and with Europe falling apart, the comparisons presumably will become even more noteworthy).

The most important message of the video, however, is that small government and economic freedom are the best answers for poverty. As Hadley explains, poor people can be liberated to live meaningful, self-reliant lives if we can reduce the heavy burden of the federal government.

Last but not least, the video doesn’t address every issue in great detail, and there are three additional points that should be added to any discussion of poverty.

  1. The biggest beneficiaries of the current system are the army of bureaucrats that receive very comfortable salaries administering various programs.
  2. The Obama Administration is looking to re-define poverty in a way that would expand the welfare state and increase the burden of redistribution programs.
  3. The welfare reform legislation of the 1990s was a small step in the right direction because it eliminated a federal entitlement and shifted responsibility back to the state level. This success story should be replicated for programs such as Medicaid.

This last point is worth emphasizing because it is also one of the core messages of the video. The federal government has done a terrible job dealing with poverty. The time has come to get Washington out of the racket of income redistribution.

Dramatic Increase in Poverty Rate: One Small Step for Obama, One Giant Step for the So-Called War on Poverty

The Census Bureau has just released the 2010 poverty numbers, and the new data is terrible.

There are now a record number of poor people in America, and the poverty rate has jumped to 15.1 percent.

But I don’t really blame President Obama for these grim numbers. Yes, he’s increased the burden of government, which doubtlessly has hindered the economy’s performance and made things worse, but the White House crowd legitimately can argue that they inherited a crummy situation.

What’s really striking, if we look at the chart, is that the poverty rate in America was steadily declining. But then, once President Lyndon Johnson started a “War on Poverty,” that progress came to a halt.

As I’ve explained before, the so-called War on Poverty has undermined economic progress by trapping people in lives of dependency. And this certainly is consistent with the data in the chart, which show that the poverty rate no longer is falling and instead bumps around between 12 percent and 15 percent.

This is bad news for poor people, of course, but it’s also bad news for taxpayers. The federal government, which shouldn’t have any role in the field of income redistribution, has squandered trillions of dollars on dozens of means-tested programs. And they’ve arguably made matters worse.

By the way, just in case you think I’m being too easy on Obama, read this post about how the Administration is considering a terrible plan to re-define poverty in order to justify ever-larger amounts of redistribution.

I fully agree that the president’s policies definitely have made—and will continue to make—matters worse. But the fundamental problem is 40-plus years of a misguided “War on Poverty” by the federal government.

Clinton, Obama, and Hayek

President Obama has been saying that if the United States government can find and eliminate Osama bin Laden after ten years of searching, it can do anything:

Already, in several appearances since the raid, Obama has described it as a reminder that “as a nation there is nothing that we can’t do,” as he put it during an unrelated White House ceremony Monday. On Sunday night, during his first comments about the operation, he linked it to American values, saying the country is “once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to.”

This is, of course, nonsense. Finding bin Laden, difficult as it proved to be, was an incomparably simple task compared to using coercion and central planning to bring about desired results in defiance of economic reality. You can’t deliver better health care to more people for less money by reducing the role of incentives and markets, even if you set your mind to it. As Russell Roberts said about a similar concept, “If we can put a man on the moon, then…”:

Putting a man on the moon is an engineering problem. It yields to a sufficient application of reason and resources. Eliminating poverty is an economic problem (and by the word “economic” I do not mean financial or related to money), a challenge that involves emergent results. In such a setting, money alone—in the amounts that a non-economic approach might suggest, one that ignores the impact of incentives and markets—is unlikely to be successful.

Obama should listen to Bill Clinton, who last fall seemed to be channeling Hayek:

Friedrich Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”

Bill Clinton, 9/21: “Do you know how many political and economic decisions are made in this world by people who don’t know what in the living daylights they are talking about?”

Pages