President Trump’s Council of Economic Advisors recently released a report showing that there is a large portion of non-disabled, working-age adults (16 to 64 years old) who are receiving government non-cash welfare payments funded by taxpayers but aren’t working. For example, of those on Medicaid, 53 percent of non-disabled, working-age adults don’t have a job.
These perverse incentives created by relaxed work requirements for able-bodied workers who receive welfare payments not only hurts their financial prospects today and over time, but is an extractive institution hurting civil society.
Institutions are the framework that makes up society. They are the rules of the game. Institutions can include formal laws and rules, but also more informal social norms, families, and churches. Institutions can be considered inclusive, like capitalism, or extractive, like socialism, as noted by Acemoglu and Robinson.
Economist Douglass North remarked in his 1993 Nobel Prize in Economics lecture that “if the institutional framework rewards productive activities then organizations—firms—will come into existence to engage in productive activities.” On the opposite side, if institutions reward unproductive behavior, the result will be more unproductive behavior and increased poverty.
Unfortunately, the institutional framework in the U.S. has many extractive programs in our welfare system that have incentivized unproductive behavior and made many people poor in the process.
As another example of a costly welfare program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides assistance to more than 10 million non-working, non-disabled working-age adults. Of all the childless adult recipients on SNAP, 63 percent do not work, which is higher than the rate of recipients with infants (57 percent)—often the most difficult age to raise a child.
Clearly, the incentives to work while getting welfare are little to none, even when you are able to work and don’t have a child. Welfare should be based on need, and with the unemployment rate at record lows and more job openings than people unemployed, there are few excuses to not work.
Work ethic, personal responsibility, and independence are all informal institutions. They are the rules of our game. These institutions are inclusive, because they allow individuals to be self-sufficient, and become productive members of civil society.
When these incentives and social norms are eroded, our institutions become extractive, redistributing resources from productive workers to welfare recipients. This process is done by government bureaucrats subjectively determining who gets what and when. Moreover, these institutions create a situation that crowds out inclusive social institutions, such as families and private charities and churches, which have been the backbone of civil society for centuries.
Our current welfare system, specifically the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), has been reformed before, making it more inclusive. This includes putting the recipients on a path to individual responsibility and prosperity by increasing work requirements to receive welfare, thereby increasing recipients’ productivity that helps them actually get off government welfare.
Chicago economist Casey Mulligan has explained that the income cliff when someone earns more income and is dropped from government welfare programs acts like an implicit marginal income tax that reduces their incentive to work. It’s time to stop this sort of welfare for non-disabled working age adults. This would not only improve the relatively low but improving employment-to-population ratio for the prime age working group (25 to 54 years old) but also help to reduce welfare and the taxes paid by workers to fund these programs.
The Trump administration’s recent report highlighting these issues and calling for an increase in work requirements of welfare programs for able-bodied people is a step in the right direction to let people prosper.