Topic: Poverty & Social Welfare

The “Success Sequence” - What Does It Tell Us?

One story about poverty in the United States goes like this: Poverty is simple to escape. Finish high school. Get a job, even a menial one. Do not have kids until you’re married. And if you do all these things, you’re pretty unlikely to be poor.

Conservatives like this story because it suggests that no significant social changes are needed to end poverty. On this view, poverty may even be just a personal choice. It’s largely up to you whether you follow the so-called “success sequence” or not.

Critics, though, are quick to point out that the success sequence is much easier described than followed, and that following it is much easier for some people than for others. Failing or dangerous schools offer little reason for students to remain. Getting a job is easier in some places than others, and easier for some types of people than others. In some communities, marriage partners are all too few. And avoiding having children is a lot to ask, because it’s a natural human desire to want to have them.

If the success sequence doesn’t hold up so well, what do we do about it? And what specifically libertarian steps remain to be done to fight poverty?

This month at Cato Unbound, we’re debating the usefulness of the success sequence as a tool for thinking about American poverty. Cato Senior Fellow Michael Tanner has written the lead essay, which I encourage you to read. Comments are open, and we welcome readers’ feedback. Discussion with a panel of diverse outside experts will continue through the end of the month.

A Fair Look at Possible Changes to Rental Assistance

Last week Secretary Carson’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) proposed changes to federal rental assistance programs. There were a variety of changes in the HUD proposal, but so far reactions have focused mainly on tenant rents. This narrow focus on a single element of the proposal doesn’t do the full proposal justice.

The three major changes are the ability to institute work requirements, the changes to tenant rents, and reductions in paperwork and monitoring. A few words on each, below.

1) Work Requirements

The proposal allows housing authorities to institute work requirements. Despite concerns from activist groups like the National Low-Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), the proposal does not allow housing authorities to apply work requirements to the elderly, disabled, or minors.

According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, 60 percent of households on public assistance are elderly or disabled. These households would be exempt. Of the remaining households, some are already working and so ostensibly they would not need to change their behavior.

In short, if all housing authorities adopted strong work requirements a minority of HUD households would be impacted, perhaps 13 - 18 percent. Work requirements are likely more of a symbolic change that expands the universe of what’s possible under government rental assistance than a provision that would dramatically change rental assistance.

2) Rent Changes

This change has drawn a lot of attention. The increase from 30 to 35% of income for rent is not ideal from a policy standpoint, because it reduces tenant incentives to earn additional dollars (or to report additional dollars if they are earned).

If rents need to be raised, the change from $50 to $150 for minimum rent is superior to the increase from 30 to 35% of income for rent. In fact, HUD would likely be better off moving all of their units to flat rate rents, similar to how minimum rents are structured.

HUD’s view is that rent changes must be made as a result of budgetary constraints. Indeed, changes in rent due to budget constraints are not unprecedented in HUD housing. In 1981, Congress increased rent from 25 to 30% of income for HUD rental assistance programs for this reason.

One important point: where the rent changes result in a financial hardship, tenants are exempt under the proposal. Examples of financial hardship include A) risk of being evicted, B) financial issues (like lose their job, a death in the family, a change in circumstances) C) tenants have lost eligibility for other welfare benefits, or are waiting to find out if they’re eligible for them, etc. Despite activists’ concerns the proposed reform would put people out on the street, it looks as though it’s designed not to.

3) Less Paperwork, Less Monitoring

There are a couple of changes related to reducing paperwork and bureaucracy in the program. The first is changing the rent calculation from adjusted income to gross income. Determining what counts as income for tenants is a very complicated process which leads tenants of similar economic circumstances to be treated differently. That’s a fairness issue, one among many in the provision of housing benefits. It’s nice to see an attempt to simplify and treat tenants similarly.

Finally, HUD rental assistance recipients currently have to recertify their income annually. The proposal changes the certification to be less frequent, from annually to once every three years. The idea is to give low-income tenants greater ability to grow their income while eliminating paperwork. Both libertarians and liberals should find this element of the proposal at least somewhat appealing.

In short, a fair analysis of the proposal requires greater nuance than what’s being offered.

The War On The Poor Has Many Fronts And Armies, Professor Krugman

Paul Krugman’s column yesterday lamented Republican policy towards the poor. He has particular gripes with Ben Carson’s changes to housing subsidies, increased work requirements for those seeking food stamps, and waivers granted to states to enable new work requirements for Medicaid.

I’m not going to get into these specific policy changes here. But let’s take Krugman’s analysis of the changes and the motivation for them at face value, and pose a question: how robust is an anti-poverty agenda that depends so much on political and societal attitudes to the poor?

As I outlined in a recent blog, it’s a mistake to think of policy towards the poor being merely about government transfers, services and benefits-in-kind. In fact, this focus on income and services has blinded the debate about poverty from the truth that there are lots and lots of state, local and federal policies that increase the price of goods and services the poor spend a disproportionate amount on.

Zoning laws and urban growth boundaries raise house prices. Regulations make childcare more expensive. Sugar, milk programs and the ethanol mandate increase food costs. Tariffs on clothes and footwear have particularly regressive effects. Energy regulations which seek to subsidize renewables rather than being “technology neutral” can raise prices. CAFE standards, constraints against ride sharing, and some regulations on gas taxes raise some transport prices too. Not to mention the broader effects of protectionism and occupational licensing in both raising prices and reducing efficiency across the economy.

Some of these things affect families by orders of magnitude greater than the changes Krugman is concerned about. Combined, they would have a huge impact for many households. What’s more, most of the status quo interventions make the economy less efficient too, reducing market-wages and, in the case of housing and childcare, deterring the mobility of labor over different dimensions. One cannot talk about a “war on the poor” without acknowledging these fronts and the armies which battle on them, not least because these bad policies in part drive significant demands for redistributive transfers in the first place.

In my view, it would be far more fruitful for liberals concerned with the well-being of the poor to focus on all these issues as part of a “first do no harm” poverty agenda. Why?

1. There’s evidence that fiscal transfers may have hit diminishing returns in terms of their role in poverty alleviation.

2. The fiscal environment is not conducive to huge new expenditures on programs, and evidence from other countries (not least Britain) suggests working age welfare is the first port of call for cuts when a fiscal crisis hits.

3. There are clear economic trade-offs where transfers are concerned. As this accompanying Twitter thread by Paul Krugman acknowledges, even increasing the availability and generosity of transfers to more people disincentivizes people from earning more income.

4. And crucially for Krugman’s column, attitudes to redistribution are volatile, and support can be replaced by narratives about “moochers” or “welfare queens” relatively quickly.

In contrast, a pro-market agenda seeking to undo existing damaging regulations at the local, state and federal levels could: reduce poverty, reduce the demands for redistributive activity, would not undermine work incentives and would be harder to undo given its dispersed nature. Those in favor of extensive redistribution should see this too: you do not have to believe existing anti-poverty programs have failed to acknowledge they can have negative unintended consequences, hit diminishing returns, or that their effectiveness is undermined by bad policies which drive up living costs.

A pro-market cost of living agenda would not “solve” poverty, of course. And there are major vested interests in each of these areas who would resist reform. But there are clearly lots of different wars on the poor being raged, even if inadvertently. As long as the poverty debate focuses on just income transfers and government services, the more bountiful battles against vested interests who drive up the poor’s living costs go unfought.

A Jobs Guaranteed Economic Disaster

Democrats are plugging new energy into an old idea: a federal “Jobs Guarantee” program. Senator Cory Booker previously introduced legislation for a pilot in high unemployment communities. Now Senator Bernie Sanders will announce a plan guaranteeing a job or training paying $15 an hour and health-care benefits to every American worker “who wants or needs one,” in a host of public infrastructure, care giving and environmental upkeep projects.

The scheme, seemingly based on a recommendation from the Levy Economic Institute, comes with grandiose purported benefits. It would, we are told, eliminate involuntary unemployment, deliver a living wage, boost GDP, reduce the cost of recessions, raise labor market standards, reduce environmental degradation, reduce racial inequality, and much else besides. If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is. There are severe problems with this idea, which can be loosely grouped under three “c’s”: costs, crowd out and corruption.


The Levy Economic Institute calculates up to 16 million could take part in such a program today (including the unemployed, those working part time seeking full time work and individuals currently inactive who might move into the labor market). Given the federal government would have to pay $15 an hour for full time jobs, plus benefits equal to 20 percent of wages, total labor costs per worker would be $37,440 per year. That’s before the cost of the materials for the programs and administration of the program itself. Even assuming some opt for part-time positions, and ignoring the non-labor program costs, we are talking about a gross cost of up to around 2.4 percent of GDP, significantly higher than the existing Medicaid program (2 percent of GDP).

The net cost on these assumptions will be lower, of course. People who take jobs will require less in welfare payments and pay some back in taxes. Some might wisely consider it a risk for their employment fortunes to be tied to the whims of politicians and their willingness to fund this program, and so remain in the private sector. But even taking this into account, and assuming the policy generates the macroeconomic bounty that the Levy researchers expect, they still think the annual net cost will be between 0.8 and 2 percent of GDP, with the program employing up to 10 percent of the workforce. That would in itself be a huge new commitment to finance at a time when the long-term fiscal outlook is already dire, and the short-term deficit already expected to balloon to over 5 percent of GDP in the coming years.


In reality, the fiscal costs are likely to be much, much higher, and the economic welfare losses even more significant, because in the labor market and broader economy, a public jobs guarantee program would significantly crowd out productive private sector activity. This type of policy will radically alter behavior of both workers and businesses, and so the supply and demand for labor.

The Census shows that, among those who worked in 2016, 70+ million Americans earned under $32,500 (the full-time job guarantee salary would be $31,200). Yes, not all of these would seek out positions on the jobs guarantee program. But a large proportion would, especially those employed in uncertain roles with low levels of job security.

In fact, some even paid more than $31,200 might consider leaving their jobs to pursue guaranteed roles if they perceive better working conditions or an easier worklife (asked under what conditions someone would be fired from such a role, the Levy Institute paper suggests that you would be sacked for failing to go to work, but that your performance would not be judged by “private sector ‘efficiency criteria’”, for example.) It’s not inconceivable then that over 25 percent of the labor force could find itself part of the scheme.

This crowd-out is likely to be particularly acute in low productivity regions, and (ironically) after economic downturns. A nationwide jobs guarantee program paying $15 an hour will be particularly attractive to workers in low wage regions, and by setting a de facto wage floor the program will prevent private investment in regions on the basis of cheap labor.

Though no doubt there would be some demand spillovers from well-paid jobs, the net consequence is highly likely to be weaker private sector job creation in poor regions, which has been the experience of countries such as Britain with a nationwide minimum wages and public sector national pay bargaining. Proponents of the scheme see “higher labor standards” as a good thing, but absent productivity improvements, policies which raise labor costs significantly will reduce the quantity of workers demanded.

There’s good reason to expect the policy will reduce the efficiency and productive potential of the economy too. Taxes will eventually need to be raised to cover the net cost of the program. In infrastructure and care giving provision, costs will rise – because nobody would now work in these directly substitutable sectors for less than the wage and conditions offered in the job guarantee program. This will waste resources, and there’s highly likely to be overinvestment in lots of relatively low value ventures and programs to ensure workers are employed, especially given the explicit aim is to provide employment rather than deliver projects at low cost.

Throwing resources at regions with higher levels of unemployment and after recessions too will work directly against market signals and deter the mobility of labor (in geographic and industrial terms) and capital to its most productive uses given prevailing market conditions. This is important: yes, employment is highly likely to have some positive externalities; but the real driver of better living standards over time are productivity improvements, discovered by market-based activity. 

Proponents of this policy seem to put an enormous weight on the idea that time out of the labor market has huge scarring consequences which could be ameliorated by any type of temporary employment. But the literature on this shows that temporary jobs do not provide the workers with skills to improve longer-term labor market outcomes.

Corruption and incentives

As if all these consequences were not bad enough, such a program will be ripe for corruption and political interference at the government, provider and individual level. Senator Sanders’ plan would be administered by the Department for Labor, with local and state governments submitting projects to regional offices for consideration. There’s a huge question mark on whether projects will be considered on economic grounds, when there might be an incentive for make-work schemes to aid particular politicians or indeed to put resources towards “public good” causes or NGOs more in line with the ethos of the governing party. For Democrats this might be for environmental issues. For Republicans it might be, say, for a wall on the southern border.

NGOs and local public bodies themselves will have incentives to apply for federal funds for projects that would otherwise have occurred anyway, and to maximize the number of applications. Pork barrel projects would proliferate. What is more, at the individual level, the guarantee coupled with the purported unwillingness to judge worker performance on a commercial basis will incentivize low levels of work effort on the margin.


The Jobs Guarantee then is an extremely large and costly endeavor, which would have major economic consequences and risk a large federal politicization of the labor market and public project delivery. 

The US does have serious labor market issues to contend with - not least depressed labor participation and a weak productivity outlook - but are things really so bad that they require such a risky and extensive policy response?

Well-paid jobs and low levels of real unemployment are outcomes desired by all. But attempting to achieve that through this program amounts to cracking a nut with a sledgehammer, undermining what matters far more for living standards: efficiency and productivity. 

The $1/Day Standard & Other Problems with DHS’s Public Charge Rule

The Trump administration has given notice of its intent to expand a current rule denying certain immigration applications to “public charges”—that is, people who are likely to rely on the government for their support. “The primary benefit of the proposed rule would be to help ensure that aliens … are self-sufficient,” the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) writes in a leaked version of the draft regulation. This intention coheres with Cato proposals to move immigrants (and everyone else) off government support, but the rule itself has serious problems that will have a net negative effect on government budgets.

Since 1891, federal immigration law has denied visas or status to foreigners deemed “likely to become a public charge” in the United States. The likely public charge law does not directly prevent immigrants from legally receiving welfare. Rather, it prevents them from receiving legal status in the United States if a government bureaucrat predicts that they could end up at some point in the future depending on welfare that the law allows them to receive. This draft rule would alter the procedures governing how DHS bureaucrats make these likely public charge predictions. It would apply to anyone in the United States applying to adjust or extend their status in the country or those seeking to enter the country for the first time.

DHS’s current guidance from 1999 defines public charge to mean “primarily dependent” on welfare, as demonstrated with the receipt of certain cash welfare programs. This new rule would redefine the term to mean receipt of any government assistance, including refundable tax credits, in any amount greater than 3 percent of the poverty line—$1 per day for a single person or 50 cents per day per person for a family of four, respectively, over the course of any year of their lives. In addition, it counts the use of public benefits by U.S. citizens—spouses, children, or parents—who depend on the immigrant. To predict future use, the rule requires adjudicators to consider a list of seven factors and at least 19 pieces of evidence.

Brief Overview of the Draft Rule’s Problems

The new rule has seven particularly serious problems.

Heritage Foundation Calls for LIHTC Repeal

Vanessa Brown Calder and I examined the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) in a November study. The LIHTC is a $9 billion federal program that is supposed to increase the supply of apartment units for people with moderate incomes.

We found that the LIHTC imposes high administrative burdens, generates local government corruption, inflates construction costs, and crowds out market-based housing supply.

The Heritage Foundation recently published its analysis of the LIHTC, and scholars Adam Michel, Norbert Michel, and John Ligon come to similar conclusions.

They find:

  • “The LIHTC is a complex program that has spawned a cottage industry of lawyers and accountants.”
  • “The value of the LIHTC is largely captured by investors and intermediaries, not renters.”
  • “The LIHTC is a costly and inefficient corporate welfare program that has failed to boost the U.S. housing stock.”
  • “Since its inception as part of the 1986 tax reform, the LIHTC has proven ineffective and inefficient.”

The authors conclude that “it is time to repeal the LIHTC and focus on reducing artificial barriers to new housing supply.”

Vanessa examined those artificial barriers in a 2017 Cato study. She argued that state and local governments can tackle housing affordability by cutting the thicket of land-use and zoning regulations that restrict housing supply.

The Heritage scholars concur:

The LIHTC and other housing subsidies are largely treating the symptom of high housing costs, rather than the cause of overly restrictive land-use regulations. Reforms to make it easier to privately build and finance new and expanded housing developments of any type would go a long way toward relieving the current upward pressure on rent in America’s cities.

The LIHTC is a failed federal response to a problem caused—or at least exacerbated—by state and local policies. As Congress considers legislation to adjust some of the provisions in its recent tax reform law, it should put the housing tax credit on the chopping block.

Bipartisan Opportunities for Criminal Justice Reform

The Brennan Center for Justice recently released a new proposal paper, Criminal Justice: An Election Agenda for Candidates, Activists, and Legislatures. The agenda covers a wide range of issues within the federal and state justice systems. Several of the paper’s suggestions overlap with what we’re doing here at Cato’s Project on Criminal Justice. Specifically, the agenda calls for the federal government to allow the states decide their own marijuana laws and policies, which aligns with our longstanding commitment to federalism and ties directly to our commitment to rolling back unconstitutional overcriminalization. The paper also supports enabling police officers to divert individuals experiencing mental health crisis or drug-related problems to social services rather than take them to jail. This is a smart solution to what we call “self-defeating policing”: the policies and practices that may inflict harmful unintended consequences on communities without making them safer or providing for more personal security. In the same vein, we applaud Brennan’s call to courts to adjust civil fines on a person’s ability to pay. Civil remedies are generally superior to jail for minor offenses, but to the poor, fines and fees can become onerous new burdens that effectively criminalize poverty.

Of course, there are some proposals in the Brennan agenda where we would take a more limited government approach, such as not replacing federal subsidies that encourage mass incarceration with new federal subsidies to go in another direction, but these should not detract from the opportunities papers like this one present to the broader criminal justice community. Criminal justice reform remains among the most promising bipartisan efforts to improve society and increase individual liberty throughout the country.

You can read the whole Brennan Center report here. For more Cato work on criminal justice and civil liberties, go here.