Friday, January 5, 2018

When Invoking Poverty and Necessity is a Ruse

Consider a policy of giving every American $1,000. The argument made in support of the policy is that poor people need money to buy necessities. If you point out that helping poor people does not require writing a check to everyone, the response is to accuse you of being someone who opposes helping poor people.

The logical fallacy in this syllogism is obvious.
Premise A: A policy helps poor people.
Premise B: You oppose the policy.
Conclusion: You oppose helping poor people. 
Of course, it may be that what is actually opposed is not support for those in need, but the broader policy which promises benefits for everyone, and thus imposes much higher cost. One might also support an alternative way of helping the poor, which involves different incentives. In this sense, there are number of cases where invoking "the poor" or "basic necessities" is a ruse, designed to provide a smokescreen for policies that mainly seek to benefits the middle and upper class. Once you are alerted to the dynamic, examples are numerous.

A standard example arises when some items are exempted from state sales taxes. Here in my home state of Minnesota, a number of items are exempt from state sales tax: food,  clothing home heating fuels, prescription drugs, certain medical devices, and caskets and funeral urns. The usual reason given for these exemptions is that these are "basic" items. The list of basic necessities is disputable: for example, only three other states exempt clothing from sales tax. But more broadly, the poverty rate in Minnesota is below 10%. If the goal is to help the bottom 10-20% of the income distribution in affording "basic" items,, it is not sensible to exempt 100% of the population from sales tax on these items. It would be straightforward to collect the sales tax from everyone, and then rebate the money to the poor in some way. Or the poor could be issued a "no sales tax" ID card that would be given to cashiers when buying certain goods.

Another example on my personal list involves congestion tolls charged for travelling in certain lanes during peak commuting times. The Washington Post recently reported that just-established congestion toll lanes in northern Virginia were charging $34.50 on a certain day to travel 10 miles during the worst of the morning commute. The story quotes the concern that such tolls are "going to introduce a real hardship for people on low wages or working in the nonprofit or public sector," along with arguments that congestion tolls needed to be capped. But of course, a price cap to make congestion fees "affordable" won't actually get rid of the congestion--and then no one will want to pay the fee, either. If the goal is to reduce transportation costs for people with low incomes, spending the congestion fees on subsidizing the mass transit that they use is going to likely to be a choice that helps more people in a more cost-effective manner.

Another example involves a recent proposal from the US Department of the Interior to raise the price of enter to 17 of the most popular national parks during their peak seasons.  This fee increase doesn't seem especially well thought-out: for example, the price for entry into these 17 parks during peak season would rise to $70 for a week of access, while the proposed fee for an annual pass to these same parks would be almost the same at $75, But those who go to national parks typically have above-average incomes, and what they spend on transportation, lodging, food, and gear is typically a lot more than the cost of entering the park. If the goal is to make national parks available and affordable to those with lower income levels, it would be fairly straightforward to set up a system where low-income people could receive vouchers. It would also be useful to provide additional low-cost mass transit and housing within the national parks. But low park entrance fees for everyone is not a cost-effective way of helping those with low incomes enjoy the parks.

Government programs that start out being aimed at the poor often find themselves expanding so that much of the assistance goes to other groups. A classic example is Community Development Block Grants, through which the federal government was going to provide funds to low-income communities. But unsurprisingly, the rules for allocating these funds include more than average income levels in a community, and a lot of the funds end up flowing to destinations and purposes that don't seem to fit the broader intention of the program. Steven Malanga makes the case for "Let’s Kill the CDBG" in the Autumn 2017 issue of City Journal. He writes:
"These days, the CDBG hands out money for projects that have little to do with its poverty-combating mission. With an average annual family income of $67,000, well above the poverty line, Manchester, New Hampshire, is no one’s idea of a depressed community; but the city is spending $200,000 in block-grant money to fill an unused pool and convert it into a “splash pad.” Elgin, in suburban Illinois—with a poverty rate of just 8 percent—is sprucing up its parks with $740,000 in CDBG funds. Fast-growing Berkeley County in South Carolina is building a library and recreation complex, including a swimming pool and tennis courts, partly with block-grant money. In 2016, Monmouth County, New Jersey—average household income: $115,000—spent more than $110,000 in CDBG funds on enhancements to a publicly owned entertainment venue, the Count Basie Theater."
An April 2017 report from the Urban Institute hits similar notes in its review of the literature: "For example, wealthy suburbs may have older housing stock and low population growth but are not especially needy. ... Studies have found that the formulae’s abilities to match funding to need have diminished over time."

Examples of programs that claim to be supporting the poor, while actually designed to confer equal or greater benefits on the non-poor, can easily be multiplied. For example, I've heard attempts to justify universal pre-K education because it might be helpful for low-income families. But subsidizing pre-K education for low-income families doesn't require subsidizing it for all. At the other end of the education spectrum, I've heard attempts to justify free college education for all because some people can't afford the costs--but it's not necessary to make it free for everyone in order to help a subset of the population. I've heard the tax deduction for mortgage interest defended as a way of encouraging homeownership, but  even leaving aside the issue that most homebuyers by definition are not poor, giving a boost to first-time homebuyers can be done in a lot of ways that don't involve allowing deductibility of mortgage interest for all. The minimum wage is often defended as a way of helping the poor, but about half of those receiving the minimum wage are not actually below the poverty line. Rather than advocating a plan that seeks to boost the incomes of high school workers from middle-class families, there are a variety of other ways of subsidizing wages for low-income workers.

 And of course, there are a number of international examples of this phenomenon as well, most prominently the many low-income countries that hold down prices or offer broad subsidies for basic necessities like fuel and food.

Many countries have had policies of keeping food prices low to  help the poor, but found that most of the benefits went to the nonpoor.  A 2014 story in the Economist noted: "In Burkina Faso, Egypt and the Philippines less than 20% of spending on food subsidies goes to poor households. In the Middle East and North Africa only 35% of subsidies reach the poorest 40%, the IMF reckons." Similar patterns often emerge for fuel subsidies, which can cost about $1 trillion annually in developing countries. Again, helping the poor could be done through cash transfers, or some form of direct distribution, or through vouchers--pretty much any approach targeted more specifically at the poor will be more affect than universal (or nearly so) lower prices or subsidies.

I'm often in favor of programs that transfer resources to the poor--and only to the poor. But it's worth being wary of the political dynamic which uses the poor as as stalking horse for policies and programs with rather different effects.