↳ EITC

December 23rd, 2019

↳ EITC

The Road in the Forest

Thank you for reading the JFI letter this year. As we prepare for another year of research and link sharing, here's some of what we sent in 2019.
We'll see you in 2020.

OVER ILLUMINATION

Highlights from a year of JFI Letters

+ In our first newsletter of 2019, we looked at a report by Yale School of Management's Evidence in Practice project, which considered the relationship between research and policymaking: "The most successful examples of evidence integration lessen the distinction between evidence generation and application, and focus on designing approaches that simultaneously generate (different types of) rigorous evidence and develop an iterative process for integrating evidence into practice." Link to the archived letter. + A July letter features work by Jonas Hjort et. al on how research evidence shaped the decisions of policymakers in Brazil. Link to the archived letter.

+ Recurring debates on the future of work: Brishen Rogers argues that labor precarity is the result of politics, not the outcome of any force of automation outside of our control: "Hotel work, food services, janitorial work, and retail work have become precarious over the past twenty years because companies in those sectors forcibly de-unionized and/or 'fissured' away their workers to subcontractors or franchisors, thereby denying them effective access to many legal rights." Link to the April letter. + In the first of a two-part series, Aaron Benanav historicizes automation debates in order to shed light on their significance for the present. Link to the October letter.

+ On education and the labor market: Alicia Sasser Modestino et. al criticize the "skills gap" theory, which suggests that labor standards are declining because American workers lack the training to enter high paid industries. They argue instead that it's due to an abundance of skilled workers that employers have raised the credentials required for entry level jobs. And Marshall Steinbaum and Julie Morgan show the "skills gap" theory to be inconsistent with the student debt crisis. Link. + In March, we looked at the proliferation of certificate programs, an understudied development in the higher education landscape. Link to the archived letter.

+ On the nuts and bolts policy history and implementation: A recent letter discussed Pamela Herd and Donald Moynihan's book, Administrative Burden, which argues that, "ultimately, burdens are the fine print in the social contract between citizens and their government." Link to the archived letter. + A look into the history of the EITC, from May. Link.

⤷ Full Article

November 12th, 2019

Hanging Scheme

TEN BILLION HOURS

Administrative burden and welfare politics

In addition to lagging behind many European economies in the breadth, amount, and quality of welfare provision, the United States also exhibits relatively low rates of take-up among the benefits it does make available. Non-take-up rates can be accounted for—at least in part—by the various bureaucratic barriers that welfare recipients face; multiple qualitative studies have documented the humiliating and arduous nature of applying for benefits. Even in the case of the ostensibly less-burdensome Earned Income Tax Credit, a large share of the transfer is captured by tax preparers.

In their 2019 book, Administrative Burden, Pamela Herd and Donald Moynihan argue that these difficulties are not incidental. Through a close inspection of the administrative design of a series of domestic welfare policies (including the Affordable Care Act, SNAP, and Social Security) they demonstrate that difficulty accessing benefits is a core, and intentional, feature of America's welfare state.

From the book's introduction:

"Burdens matter. They affect whether people will be able to exercise fundamental rights of citizenship, such as voting; they affect whether people can access benefits that can improve quality of life, such as health insurance. Burdens can alter the effectiveness of public programs. Ultimately, administrative burdens are the fine print in the social contract between citizens and their government.

Administrative burdens are the product of political choices. In many cases, political actors see burdens as a policy tool to achieve ideological goals. Such choices are demonstrated by the maintenance of burdens even when changing circumstances call for governments to minimize them: The failure of the American administrative state to adapt Depression-era burdens on immigrants from Europe is one example of how not acting is itself a choice. Once the war began, Congress and the State Department increased restrictions under the justification that immigrants posed a security threat. In 1943, the new State Department visa application was four feet long."

Link to the book, and link to a January interview with the authors on the New Books Network.

  • Via a review of Herd and Moynihan's book: the Information Collection Budget report from the OMB, which estimates that "the public spent an estimated 9.78 billion hours on federal paperwork in 2015, a net increase of 350 million burden hours from 2014." Link.
  • Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward made a powerful case for non-take-up rates as a central clarifying element of the American welfare system: their 1971 book, Regulating the Poor, advocated mass enrollment in welfare programs to reveal the inadequacy of the benefits system. Link to the book, link to seminal 1966 essay that first proposed the "Cloward-Piven Strategy."
  • "This article explores the relationship between revolution and the bureaucratization of tax administration in early modern England and France." Edgar Kiser and Joshua Kane on the history of bureaucracy. Link. Tangentially related: a "history of file-keeping and bureaucratic paperwork in Maoist China" by Jian Ming Chris Chang. Link.
⤷ Full Article

May 28th, 2019

Interior Spring

CONTINGENT REFORM

The history and theory behind the Earned Income Tax Credit

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is the country's largest anti-poverty program. In 2018, over 20 million filers received $63 billion in EITC refunds. Because of its bipartisan popularity and its secure position in the tax code, with no distinct administrative unit managing its payouts, it is also at the center of several substantial anti-poverty programs recently floated in the House and Senate. These proposals variously expand and modify the EITC, often in concert with the Child Tax Credit, in order to offer a more robust benefit.

A look into the history of the EITC reveals that, at its formation, the credit was an unlikely candidate for a major anti-poverty vehicle. In a CONGRESSIONAL RESEARCH SERVICE paper, MARGOT KRANDLE HOLLICK lays out its legislative history, showing that its 1972 introduction by Senator Russell Long was an intervention against proposed guaranteed income programs, and that "the bill had originally included a provision that would have required states to reduce cash welfare by an amount equal to the aggregate EITC benefits received by their residents." From the paper:

"The origins of the EITC can be found in the debate in the late 1960s and 1970s over how to reform welfare—known at the time as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Some policymakers were interested in alternatives to cash welfare for the poor. Some welfare reform proposals relied on the 'negative income tax' (NIT) concept. The NIT proposals would have provided a guaranteed income to families who had no earnings (the 'income guarantee' that was part of these proposals). For families with earnings, the NIT would have been gradually reduced as earnings increased. Influenced by the idea of a NIT, President Nixon proposed in 1971 the 'family assistance plan' (FAP) that 'would have helped working-poor families with children by means of a federal minimum cash guarantee.'

Senator Russell Long, then chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, did not support FAP because it provided 'its largest benefits to those without earnings' and would, in his opinion, discourage people from working. Instead, Senator Long proposed a 'work bonus' plan that would supplement the wages of poor workers. Senator Long stated that his proposed 'work bonus plan' was 'a dignified way' to help poor Americans 'whereby the more he [or she] works the more he [or she] gets.'"

Link to that paper.

  • A 1999 Brookings paper by historian Dennis Ventry also examines the unique political history of the EITC, writing that its emergence appealed to legislators as "both an anti-poverty and an anti-welfare program." Link.
  • Brian Steensland's excellent book The Failed Welfare Revolution: America's Struggle Over Guaranteed Income Policy surveys this history in depth. Link. And link to a 2006 paper that preceded its publication, on cultures of "worth" and anti-poverty programs.
  • A 2015 Duke Law Review Note titled "Earned Income Tax Credit: Path Dependence and the Blessing of Undertheorization," examines "the credit’s path-dependent past, which has resulted in a present-day EITC that manifests a diverse, uncoordinated assortment of policy purposes." Link.
  • The above-linked recent proposals have focused on expanding the program's breadth, but retain in some form the "phase-in" structure originally proposed by Long, which excludes non-waged workers from claiming the return. Link to a (previously shared) critique of this structure—and work-tied benefits more broadly—by Matt Bruenig. Link to an also previously shared paper by JFI Fellow Max Kasy, which proposes expanding the EITC into a universal benefit.
  • Our colleagues at the Economic Security Project have developed a proposed "Cost of Living Refund," which tackles several important issues with the EITC. It includes proposals for monthly disbursements and expanding eligibility to un-waged care work. Link to the project's website, which hosts research and model legislation.
⤷ Full Article

March 2nd, 2019

Weak Local Lineament

REACH ARREARS

Charting the significance of credit and debt throughout society

Household debt has proliferated in the past decade. In the final quarter of 2018, it reached $13.54 trillion—an $869 billion increase since the previous peak in 2008 and a 21.4% increase since the post-crisis trough. While it is now widely recognized that the financialization of household consumption set the groundwork for the Recession (see for example this chapter by Manuel Aalbers), credit markets seem immune to structural reform.

On the one hand, access to credit enables purchases and investments crucial to long term financial mobility; on the other, it incorporates those who lack resources into a cycle of obligations to lenders. In her most recent publication in the Annual Review of Sociology, RACHEL E. DWYER questions how debt has shaped the American social landscape. She develops a two dimensional model of formal debt relationships which categorizes contracts according to the source of credit (state vs. market) and the nature of the obligation (prospective vs. retrospective). The model integrates the logic of debt and credit relationships with an analysis of distributional politics:

"The top row of prospective credit offers are more likely made to affluent or middle-class and disproportionately white populations, and the bottom row of retrospective financial obligations are more likely to fall on lower-income or poor and disproportionately racial/ethnic minority populations. The experience of debt and financial fragility is thus different across these social groups defined by class, race/ethnicity, and other social status, though also tied together by similar logics of financialization and individualized accountability for life conditions."

Dwyer's research shows how credit and debt relations vary geographically and temporally, encouraging a comparative analysis of debt relationships in countries with different political economies. Link to the article.

  • On the unique role that credit markets play in the American economy, see Monica Prasad on the credit-welfare state tradeoff, and Colin Crouch on privatized-mortgage Keynesianism. Link to the first; link to the second.
  • For a pre-crisis examination of credit and inequality, see Patrick Bolton and Howard Rosenthal's Credit Markets for the Poor. Link.
  • Vicki Been, Ingrid Ellen, and Josiah Madar explore the relationship between urban segregation and subprime mortgage lending. Link.

    New Researchers: VISIBILITY PREMIUM

Political effects of celebrity exposure

In a novel paper, HEYU XIONG—a Phd candidate at NORTHWESTERN and newly appointed professor at CASE WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSITY—studied the political consequences of television celebrity. He used the career of Ronald Reagan as a case study and exploited quasi-experimental variation in television reception to estimate the effects of celebrity media exposure on political outcomes, finding that
support for Reagan based on non-political factors extended nearly two decades after his television career—an effect more pronounced in areas in which Reagan was not a known political entity. The findings suggest that elections hinge considerably more on non-political media exposure and personal characteristics than previously assumed.

From the abstract:

"My results contribute to our knowledge of the vote decision process. Understanding what candidate information is pertinent and how that information is processed is key to understanding the selection of elected officials and, subsequently, the policies those elected officials enact. The economic theory of electoral competition is traditionally situated in the framework of the policy oriented voter. Even without the assertion of rationality, voters are, at the very least, presumed to be voting in order to advance a policy position or to express a political preference. While this preoccupation is not misplaced, the results suggest that candidates' personal characteristics constitute a significant, if substandard, criterion for vote choice."

Link to the paper.

⤷ Full Article