Christopher Flavelle: U.S. getting poor return on anti-poverty programs

01/09/2014 12:00 AM

01/08/2014 5:16 PM

Conservatives say that 50 years after President Johnson declared war on poverty, the lesson is that more government spending, at least the way anti-poverty programs are set up today, isn’t the best way to solve the problem. The data suggest they have a point.

In 2009, the United States shelled out $8,713 in government social spending per resident, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That didn’t put the United States at the top of the list; 12 countries spent more, led by Luxembourg at $19,556. (All amounts are in U.S. dollars and are adjusted to control for differences in purchasing power among countries.)

But the U.S. was more generous than most, at least in dollar terms. Its per-person social spending was 15 percent higher than the OECD average, topping countries traditionally viewed as welfare states, including Britain, Spain, Canada, Greece and Portugal.

(Gauging generosity isn’t straightforward. By another measure – share of gross domestic product – the U.S. was below the OECD average in 2009. Using that approach, the U.S. directed 19 percent of its wealth toward social spending that year, slightly less than the 22 percent average across OECD countries. That gap remained constant through 2013.)

What did the U.S. get for all that money? According to OECD statistics, the share of the U.S. population living at or below 50 percent of the median income after taxes and transfers was 17 percent in 2010. That’s the fifth-highest among OECD countries for which 2010 data are available, trailing only Israel, Mexico, Turkey and Chile.

The average across all OECD countries was just 11 percent. So whether you measure social spending in dollars or as a share of GDP, the U.S. is doing a worse job of fighting poverty than its level of spending would suggest.

Aside from Spain, with a level of 15 percent, no European country even came close to the U.S. incidence of poverty. Britain, where government social spending per person was 4 percent lower than in the U.S., had a poverty rate of 10 percent, just over half that of the U.S. Meanwhile, Canada, which spent 16 percent less on social programs, had a poverty rate about two-thirds the U.S. level.

There are different ways of interpreting those numbers. One is that the American brand of capitalism is so aggressive, and the financial outcome of that system so lopsided, that closing the gap even a little bit is more expensive than in other developed countries.

But for that explanation to hold, the U.S. poverty rate before taxes and transfers would also need to be unusually high. That’s not the case: In 2010, the share of Americans earning 50 percent or less of the median income before taxes and transfers was 28 percent – a high figure, to be sure, but near the middle of the 26 OECD countries for which 2010 figures are available.

France, for example, had a poverty rate of 35 percent before taxes and transfers. Yet it was able to bring that figure down to just 8 percent, a drop of more than three-quarters, at a per-person cost of $10,800. The U.S. spent almost as much, but in return it reduced its poverty rate by only a third. Even measured as a share of GDP, France spent about two-thirds more than the U.S., but it got more than twice the reduction in poverty.

In other words, the OECD data suggest that for every dollar of social spending, the U.S. gets less poverty reduction than other developed countries. There are plenty of possible explanations for that, including poorly run programs; spending that is disproportionately focused on certain groups (such as the elderly); and noneconomic barriers facing some minorities.

Another explanation could be the share of social spending that comes in the form of cash, rather than services. U.S. social spending is evenly split between cash benefits and services; in France, cash makes up almost two-thirds of the balance, according to the OECD.

Whatever the reasons, the combination of relatively high social spending and relatively low poverty reduction gives credence to a main plank of Republicans’ argument: When it comes to the war on poverty, the current approach isn’t working that well, in terms of getting the most value for what the U.S. is already spending. What should be done differently is another question.

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