Topic: Trade and Immigration

Happy Birthday, Welfare Reform

Ten years ago today, Bill Clinton signed welfare reform into law. As we look back on the results of those 10 years, it’s worth reflecting on just how wrong the critics were.

At the time the bill was signed, the welfare rights lobby warned that “wages will go down, families will fracture, millions of children will be made more miserable than ever.” One frequently cited study predicted that more than a million children would be thrown into poverty. 

Rep. Jim McDermott wasn’t satisfied with that prediction — he raised the estimate to 2.5 million starving children. Welfare advocates painted vivid pictures of families sleeping on grates in our cities, widespread starvation, and worse.

The New York Times claimed “the effect on our cities will be devastating.” Sen. Frank Lautenberg  (D-NJ) predicted “Hungry and homeless children” would be walking our streets “begging for money, begging for food, even…engaging in prostitution.”  The Nation warned bluntly, “people will die, businesses will close, infant mortality will soar.”

If one listened to the welfare lobbies, you would have expected to be stepping over bodies in the streets every time you left your house.

Now, with 10 years of experience, we can see that those claims were about as correct as claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Welfare rolls are down. Roughly 2.5 million families have left the program, a 57 percent decline. Undoubtedly, some of this was due to a growing economy, especially in the late 1990s, but welfare rolls remain down despite the post-9/11 economic slowdown.

At the same time, poverty rates today are below the rates before welfare reform was enacted. Child poverty rates declined from more than 20 percent in 1996 to 17.8 percent today. Roughly 1.6 million children were lifted out of poverty. Perhaps even more impressively, the poverty rate among black children has fallen at the fastest rate since figures have been recorded. 

Dependent single mothers, the group most heavily affected by welfare reform, account heavily for this decline. Since the enactment of welfare reform, the poverty rate for female-headed families with children has fallen from 46 to 28.4 percent. The decline in poverty among female-headed households has been greater than for any other demographic group.

Most of those who left welfare found work, and the vast majority of them work full-time.  It is true that most first jobs found by those leaving welfare are entry-level positions — on average, they earn about $16,000 per year. That’s not much, but for many it leaves them better off than they were before. Moreover, studies show that as these former welfare recipients increase their work experience, their earnings and benefits increase. And, for better or worse, many continue to receive other forms of government assistance.

Surveys of former welfare recipients indicate that they believe their quality of life has improved since leaving welfare. And they are optimistic about the future. A majority of former welfare recipients believe that their lives will be even better in one to five years. Many of the former recipients actually praise welfare reform as a stimulus for their beginning to look for work and as an opportunity for a fresh start, and a chance to make things better for themselves and their children. Both the women and their children appear to benefit psychologically from the dignity of working.

Certainly, I’ve had my own criticisms of welfare reform. It didn’t go far enough toward making people truly independent of government. It is too prescriptive, setting too many detailed rules for states to follow. The recent reauthorization of the reform added a worthless $1.7 billion program to encourage marriage. And, Congress has failed to build on welfare reform to restructure other federal anti-poverty programs.

Still, by almost any measure you can think of, it is clear that the critics of welfare reform were quite simply wrong.

That’s worth keeping in mind when those same Chicken Littles raise similar scare stories about the proposed reform of other government programs, from Medicare and Medicaid to Social Security. Once again, we are hearing that any changes, reductions, or “privatization” of these programs will lead to widespread poverty, suffering, and other disasters. For example, they claim that allowing younger workers to privately invest a portion of their Social Security taxes through personal accounts will leave seniors eating cat food. But given their track record, maybe we should be a little bit skeptical the next time they predict the sky is falling.

Every Day in Every Way …

Big-ticket items drive most discussions of politics and government, but let’s not forget to lament the small advances that help make big government what it is.

At the outbreak of hostilities in southern Lebanon, my well-traveled colleague Tom Palmer expressed dismay that Americans overseas should expect a lift home courtesy of the U.S. government when they’ve gotten in harm’s way. Alas, by the end of July, Congress passed the Returned Americans Protection Act of 2006, which raised by $5 million the fiscal year 2006 limit on emergency assistance funds provided to U.S. citizens returning from foreign countries. Score one for bigger government — and for less responsible people.

But the bill actually results in reduced spending, saving about three cents (net present value) per U.S. family. How could this be?

A little legislative artifice did the trick. You see, the bill also allowed state food stamp agencies access to the National Directory of New Hires. They can use this database to verify employment and wage information for food stamp recipients using information on every newly hired American worker’s employment, wages, and receipt of unemployment insurance. With access to these data, state food stamp agencies will be able to better verify the income of their beneficiaries and reduce overpayments.

Created “for the children“ — a tool for tracking down deadbeat dads — the National Directory of New Hires is slowly but surely being put to new uses, including now more careful administration of food stamps. For tens or hundreds of reasons that are largely good, systems like the NDNH database will expand until the point is reached where we are all under comprehensive surveillance. 

Lost privacy is a cost of large government. In this case, the government has monetized worker data to economize on food stamp programs, masking the cost of scooping up American travelers caught overextended abroad. 

A little more spending here, a little more surveillance there. Every day in every way …

Bashing Wal-Mart (and Millions of Shoppers)

Can Democrats ride what they see as a populist wave of anger against Wal-Mart to success in the 2006 elections and beyond? According to a New York Times story this morning:

Across Iowa this week and across much of the country this month, Democratic leaders have found a new rallying cry that many of them say could prove powerful in the midterm elections and into 2008: denouncing Wal-Mart for what they say are substandard wages and health care benefits …

The focus on Wal-Mart is part of a broader strategy of addressing what Democrats say is general economic anxiety and a growing sense that economic gains of recent years have not benefited the middle class or the working poor.

This new strategy tells us much more about the lingering anti-business, anti-market and, yes, elitist mindset of the Democratic Party’s national leaders than it does about Wal-Mart itself.

Wal-Mart and other price-conscious discount retailers are really a working family’s best friend. They operate in the marketplace as representatives for millions of consumers, ensuring that they get the best and lowest prices possible from wholesalers and producers. Tens of millions of American shoppers vote with their feet every week by visiting their local Wal-Mart.

If Wal-Mart offers wages and benefits that are below the national average, it is not because of company policy but because of the realities of the marketplace. Retail jobs in general offer below-average compensation because the jobs tend to be lower-skilled and less productive than most other jobs. Even so, Wal-Mart’s wages within the retail sector are competitive. A worker at Wal-Mart is more likely to have health insurance and be paid more than a worker with similar skills at a small, “mom and pop” retailer.

The denunciation of Wal-Mart is largely driven by politics. Labor unions, a key Democratic Party constituency, see non-unionized Wal-Mart stores as a threat to their efforts to organize retail workers, especially those in the grocery sector.

Democrats will need to decide who they want to represent: Tens of millions of cost-conscious, lower- and middle-income shoppers, or noisy but far less numerous union members who do not like competition.

Winning with Zero

Though prospects for broad reform of the U.S. antidumping law are tied to the now-moribund Doha Round of trade negotiations, curtailing antidumping abuse is still viable through other channels. Yesterday, the Appellate Body of the World Trade Organization ruled that the U.S. dumping calculation technique known as “zeroing” violates the WTO’s Antidumping Agreement.

In determining margins of dumping (which dictate the prospective antidumping duties applied to affected imports), the Department of Commerce typically compares a foreign exporter’s U.S. and home market prices. There are usually dozens or hundreds (sometimes thousands) of comparisons made, each generating a margin of dumping, which can be positive, negative or zero.

Before averaging the individual dumping margins to produce an overall antidumping duty rate, the DOC perpetrates some sleight of hand by setting all of the negative dumping margins to zero. This, of course, has the effect of seriously inflating the overall rate and dissuading subsequent importation.

Zeroing is probably the most distortive of a multitude of methodological tricks the DOC undertakes in the name of fighting unfair trade. In previous research, Brink Lindsey and I looked at 18 actual dumping cases and found that had the DOC not engaged in zeroing, the antidumping duty rates would have been, on average, 89 percent lower.

If the United States complies with yesterday’s ruling and ceases the practice in all cases prospectively, the antidumping law will remain a nuisance, but its capacity to seriously obstruct trade will be weakened considerably.

Every Day Brings an Emergency

The U.S. Farm Bill is due to be redrafted in the first half of next year and Cato will be part of what is shaping up to be a lively debate. The recent round of WTO negotiations were one hope for reducing the costly distortions that agricultural subsidies impose, but we all know what happened there. (The WTO news release can be found here if you are not up to speed).

The 2007 Farm Bill, then, provides the next best opportunity for much needed reform. But, considering the noises coming from Congressmen, we reformers have our work cut out. Consider this recent pearl, offered by Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.):”The fact is we know there is emergency assistance required every year, whether it’s for drought, floods or whatever natural cause…” Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language defines an emergency as “a sudden, urgent, usually unforeseen occurrence or occasion requiring immediate action.” I don’t think something (a different ‘something’ all the time, according to the Senator) that happens with certainty every year fits that definition.

Senator Hagel went on to say…”Why don’t we craft a farm bill that is visionary, relevant, real and deals with the challenges we know agriculture producers deal with?” I am sure the Senator meant the question to be rhetorical, but I agree with the Senator – why don’t we craft a Farm Bill that is visionary, relevant and real. A vision of farmers making a living from markets, relevant to the fact of the significant cost of these programs, and real – as in, real different to the last farm bill (a huge step backwards from the relatively tame 1996 farm bill). As for the challenges, surely farmers, like other small (and not so small) businesses should be able to deal with challenges unassisted by government (read: taxpayer and consumer) support?

I’m an Australian so I know something about drought. I’m also an economist, so I know something about comparative advantage. Maybe if every year is a disaster year in some place, then farmers shouldn’t be farming there….

The Welfare Kings of Farming

There is an excellent op-ed in today’s LA Times on the special kind of corporate welfare given to farmers. David Boaz and I have both written blog entries (here and here) and done podcasts on the topic (mine on 05/30/06 and David’s on 07/25/06). As the farm bill comes up for extension/review/obliteration (okay, that last one was a bit optimistic), this topic is one to watch.

Hillary’s Rural Renaissance

Further to David Boaz’s post below on the Democratic Leadership Council’s recent spending plans, Senator Hillary Clinton has called for a “rural renaissance” to “restore the promise and prosperity to main streets and rural communities.” The full press release can be viewed here, but these are the main points:

  • A “national broadband strategy” to “coordinate and maximize federal resources” which would newly include a National Rural Broadband Innovation Fund and the creation of a single office run by an “administrator” that would provide a “one-stop shopping clearing house for innovators and businesses that want to expand broadband in rural areas.” Strange, but from where I’m standing, the Internet seems to have evolved pretty well without government interference so far.
  • A “Rural Regional Investment Program, which would provide equity investments to fund innovative opportunities and partnerships in rural areas” that would “provide rural communities with flexible resources to develop comprehensive, collaborative, locally-controlled planning and to foster innovative community and economic development strategies.” Senator Clinton’s proposal also includes more “help” in administering small private loans “pooling private capital and administering that capital through trusted intermediaries” (overseen by the Federal government, presumably). As the seemingly inexhaustible stream of money to ethanol production has shown, investment money to rural areas seems to flow quite nicely when investors see promising (if pork-induced) returns.
  • Speaking of ethanol, Senator Clinton would like to see the creation of a $1 billion Strategic Energy Fund to “support [the] rapid development of renewable energy, including biofuels.”
  • Then there are a host of other measures, including so-called “green” payments, a more reliable safety net that would “help manage risk” and include counter-cyclical payments (the most trade distorting and offensive kind to our trade partners), and more spending on health care and rural education.

The US Government has been lavishing subsidies on farmers since the New Deal in the 1930s, and has spent over $55 billion propping up the agricultural sector since the enactment of the 2002 Farm Bill. Far from giving away even more of taxpayers’ money, surely it is time for the government to stop giving agriculture special treatment and to allow farmers to carry the risks and reap the rewards of their investments, just like every other businessperson in America.