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Thursday, November 23, 2006

Milton Friedman's Social Welfare Program

Not everyone realizes that Milton Friedman is the "architect of the most successful social welfare program of all time":

The Other Milton Friedman: A Conservative With a Social Welfare Program by Robert Frank, Economic Scene, NY Times: Milton Friedman ... was the patron saint of small-government conservatism. Conservatives who invoke his name in defense of Social Security privatization and other cutbacks in the social safety net might thus be surprised to learn that he was also the architect of the most successful social welfare program of all time.

Market forces can accomplish wonderful things, he realized, but they cannot ensure a distribution of income that enables all citizens to meet basic economic needs. His proposal, which he called the negative income tax, was to replace the multiplicity of existing welfare programs with a single cash transfer — say, $6,000 — to every citizen. A family of four with no market income would thus receive an annual payment from the I.R.S. of $24,000. For each dollar the family then earned, this payment would be reduced by some fraction — perhaps 50 percent. A family of four earning $12,000 a year, for example, would receive a net supplement of $18,000 (the initial $24,000 less the $6,000 tax on its earnings). [giving a total income of 30,000]

Mr. Friedman... was above all a pragmatist... If the main problem of the poor is that they have too little money, he reasoned, the simplest and cheapest solution is to give them some more. He saw no advantage in hiring armies of bureaucrats to dispense food stamps, energy stamps, day care stamps and rent subsidies.

As always, Mr. Friedman’s policy prescriptions were shaped by his desire to minimize adverse economic incentives, a feature that architects of earlier welfare programs had largely ignored. Those programs ... typically reduced a family’s benefits ...[with] each increment in earned income. ...[A] family ... might see its total benefits fall by $2 for each extra dollar it earned. ...[N]o formal training in economics was necessary to see that working didn’t pay. In contrast, someone who worked additional hours under Mr. Friedman’s plan would always take home additional after-tax income.

The negative income tax was never adopted in the end, because of concern that a payment large enough to support an urban family of four might induce many to go on the dole. ... Instead, Congress adopted the earned-income tax credit, essentially the same program except that only people who were employed received benefits. ...[T]he earned-income tax credit has proved far more efficient than conventional programs, just as Mr. Friedman predicted. Yet because it covers only those who work, it cannot be the sole weapon in society’s antipoverty arsenal.

This month, economic populists like Jim Webb, Jon Tester and others were elected to Congress on pledges to strengthen the social safety net. In pursuing this task, they should take seriously Milton Friedman’s concern about incentives. How might they expand support for the unemployed without undermining work incentives?

One possibility is government-sponsored employment coupled with negative income tax payments that are too small to live on... For others, government would stand as an employer of last resort. With adequate supervision and training, even the unskilled can perform many useful tasks. They can plant seedlings on eroding hillsides, for example, or remove graffiti from public spaces. ... Coupled with low negative income tax payments, wages from public service or private employment could lift everyone from poverty. This combination would provide no incentive to go on the dole.

Mr. Friedman, of course, would not have welcomed an expansion of the federal bureaucracy. But ... guaranteeing employment at low wages would require no such expansion. By inviting companies to bid for program contracts, government could harness market forces to control costs.

In the face of huge budget deficits, is such a program affordable? In ... 1943, ... Mr. Friedman proposed a progressive consumption tax as the best source of revenue to meet critical national objectives. ... High tax rates on consumption by the wealthy, Mr. Friedman argued, would generate additional revenue with only minimal sacrifice. So if providing greater economic security for low- and middle-income families is an important national objective, ... there are ways to pay the bill.

By all accounts, Mr. Friedman was a generous and compassionate man, someone more keenly aware of good luck’s contribution to individual prosperity than many of his disciples. Careful students of his work will be inspired not to dismantle the social safety net but to make it more effective.

    Posted by on Thursday, November 23, 2006 at 12:15 AM in Economics, Income Distribution, Social Security, Taxes | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (15)

          

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