Recent research suggests that social spending in the US is similar to or exceeds the expenditures in Denmark and Sweden, all things considered. But where does this spending go? Who are the main beneficiaries? The disadvantaged, or other groups?:
Social spending and poverty, by Lane Kenworthy: It’s commonly thought that a market-liberal political economy is best for the rich while a social-democratic one is best for the poor. Some recent research suggests reason to question this. Analyses by Willem Adema of the OECD, by Adema and Maxime Ladaique, and by Price Fishback conclude that the quantity of social expenditures in the United States is similar to or greater than in Denmark and Sweden, two nations long considered large-welfare-state exemplars.*
How so? Government social transfers account for a much larger share of GDP in Sweden and Denmark. But the U.S. government distributes more benefits in the form of tax breaks rather than transfers than do the two Nordic countries; Denmark and Sweden tax back a larger portion of public transfers than the United States does; private social expenditures, such as those on employment-based health insurance and pensions, are greater in the U.S.; and America’s per capita GDP is larger.
The standard indicator of social policy effort is gross public social expenditures as a percentage of GDP. Denmark and Sweden are much higher than the United States on this measure.
Now shift to net (rather than gross) public and private (rather than public alone) expenditures per person (rather than as a percentage of GDP, with purchasing power parities used to convert Danish and Swedish kroner into U.S. dollars). According to the calculations by Adema and Ladaique (Fishback’s are similar), we get a very different picture. By this measure the U.S. is the biggest spender.
This looks like good news for the poor in the United States. Is it? Unfortunately, no. These adjustments change the story with respect to the aggregate quantity of resources spent on social protection in the three countries, but they have limited bearing on redistribution and on the living standards of the poor.
Begin with tax breaks. Researchers count as “social” those designed to provide support in circumstances that adversely affect people’s well-being. In the United States these disproportionately go to the affluent and the middle class. The chief ones are tax advantages for employer and employee contributions to private health insurance and private pensions. These do little to help people at the low end of the distribution, who often work for employers that don’t provide health or retirement benefits. One valuable tax benefit for low-income households is the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), but it is already included in the standard OECD data on government social expenditures. Another is the child tax credit, but it is non-refundable and so of limited value to low-income households, many of whom don’t owe any federal income tax.
Next consider tax “clawbacks” in the Nordic countries. Public transfer programs in Denmark and Sweden tend to be “universal” in design: a large share of the population is eligible for the benefit. This is thought to boost public support for such programs. But it renders them very expensive. To make them more affordable, the government claws back some of the benefit by taxing it as though it were regular income. All countries do this, including the United States, but the Nordic countries do it more extensively. Does that hurt their poor? Very little. The tax rates tend to increase with household income, so much of the tax clawback hits middle- and upper-income households.
What’s the impact of private social spending? In the U.S. this accounts for roughly two-fifths of all social expenditures. It consists mainly of employer contributions to health insurance and employment-based pension benefits. Here too the picture changes a great deal on average, but not much for the poor. Employer-based health insurance and pension plans reach few low-income households.
So how well-off are the poor in the United States, with its “hidden welfare state,” compared to social-democratic Denmark and Sweden? One measure is average posttransfer-posttax (“disposable”) income among households in the bottom decile of the income distribution. Here are my calculations using the best available comparative data, from the Luxembourg Income Study (LIS). (The numbers are adjusted for household size. They refer to a household with a single adult. For a family of four, multiply by two.)
This is a pretty big difference, not in America’s favor. ...
Helping the poor is not, of course, the only thing we want from social spending. But it surely is one thing. The United States spends more money on social protection than is often thought, yet that spending doesn’t do nearly as much to help America’s poor as we might like.
For those interested, I’m finishing up a book manuscript that looks at this issue and related ones in more detail.
I shortened this a bit, there's more in the original post. I'm wondering what this implies about all those studies that compared growth rates in Europe and the US and then, based upon a misleading measurement of social expenditures, concluded that higher social spending hurts growth. I suppose they could argue that higher spending on the poor rather that the middle class or affluent is harmful, or that it is due to differences in factors such as clawbacks (i.e. taxing the rich), but those explanations don't ring very true to me.