IMF and OECD Call for Stronger EITC and Minimum Wage

July 30, 2014 at 11:42 am

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which have previously recommended expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and raising the federal minimum wage, both issued recent reports underscoring that these measures should be viewed as complements, not competing alternatives.

The reminder that a higher minimum wage can make a stronger EITC more effective at reducing poverty and encouraging work is especially timely given House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s new poverty plan.  Ryan commendably recommended expanding the EITC for childless workers and non-custodial parents, but presented this as an alternative to a minimum wage increase.

The IMF report recommends:

An expansion of the EITC (including making permanent the various extensions that are due to expire in 2017) would also raise living standards for the very poor.  Finally, given its current low level, the minimum wage should be increased.  This would help raise incomes for millions of working poor and would have strong complementarities with the suggested improvements in the EITC, working in tandem to ensure a meaningful increase in after-tax earnings for the nation’s poorest households.

The OECD working paper reiterates the OECD’s previous finding that “the EITC is a large and successful antipoverty program” and recommends strengthening the EITC for childless workers and non-custodial adults, along with raising the minimum wage.  Because the EITC is a proven work incentive, it expands the number of people seeking jobs in the low-wage sector, which can put some downward pressure on the wages that employers offer potential workers — meaning that some EITC dollars would effectively flow to employers, not workers.  A higher minimum wage helps offset that effect.  As the OECD explains:

Setting the federal minimum wage at a reasonable level can also help to make the EITC more effective at raising incomes. Although hard to quantify, employers could be capturing part of the credit by paying lower wages than they would in the absence of the EITC (OECD, 2009). Increasing the federal minimum wage would counteract this dead-weight loss by supporting wage levels.

For policymakers of either party striving to expand opportunity and raise the living standards of working-poor families, the policy roadmap is clear:  extend the recent improvements in the EITC and Child Tax Credit, expand the EITC for childless workers, and raise the minimum wage.

GAO Medicaid Data Show Per Capita Caps Would Lead to Disparate, Harmful Funding Cuts

July 30, 2014 at 10:04 am

We’ve previously warned that proposals to change the formula for federal Medicaid funding for states to a fixed dollar amount per Medicaid beneficiary — known as a “per capita cap” — would mean cuts in federal funding for all states.  The change would hit some states particularly hard due to substantial differences in per-beneficiary spending and how fast such costs grow over time.  A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) analysis backs up our warning.

GAO’s analysis shows that states vary widely in how much they spend per beneficiary, consistent with our own analysis and that of the Kaiser Family Foundation.  GAO estimated average spending in 2008 for each state for different groups of beneficiaries — a child, a person with a disability, a senior, and a non-disabled, non-elderly adult — using federal expenditure and enrollment data.  As one would expect, overall, on average, Medicaid spending on people with disabilities and on seniors was significantly greater than spending on other adults and on children.

But spending on these enrollment groups varied considerably among states.  For example, Medicaid spending per child beneficiary was $5,877 in Vermont and $1,702 in California.  And average Medicaid spending per senior beneficiary was $28,564 in Montana and $9,882 in Alabama.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) and Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who requested the GAO analysis, responded to the findings by reiterating their proposal to establish a per capita cap, under which the federal government would no longer cover a fixed share of each state’s overall Medicaid costs but instead would limit each state to a fixed dollar amount per beneficiary.

Rep. Upton and Sen. Hatch previously argued that a per capita cap would “normalize” Medicaid spending across states, implying that states with higher-than-average spending per beneficiary have inflated costs.  In reality, states with relatively low Medicaid spending per beneficiary would likely fare disproportionately worse than higher-spending states under such a cap, because they would receive relatively less funding due to federal funding formulas that are typically based on current spending per beneficiary.

GAO tried to identify the factors driving this spending variation.  It concluded that while some factors were within the states’ control, such as optional benefits offered and optional eligibility levels, many significant factors were clearly not, including geographic variation in health care wages, differing enrollee service needs, and demographic differences among states such as the percentage of enrollees who are seniors.  In other words, just as overall health care spending and utilization among the states vary, so does Medicaid spending per beneficiary.  As a result, nothing in GAO’s report indicates that states with higher spending per beneficiary were somehow “overspending” relative to those with lower spending per beneficiary.

GAO’s findings don’t justify proposals to alter Medicaid’s financing structure.  They do, however, emphasize that while all states would face cuts in federal funding under proposals like a per capita cap, some states would disproportionately face larger ones.

Social Security’s #1 Priority: Raise Share of Payroll Tax Going to Disability Insurance

July 29, 2014 at 4:49 pm

The Social Security trustees’ new report shows why the program’s immediate priority should be to raise the share of payroll taxes allocated to Disability Insurance (DI) and lower the share allocated to Old-Age and Survivors Insurance to keep the DI trust fund from running out in 2016.  Nine million disabled workers face a 20 percent across-the-board cut in DI benefits if the trust fund is depleted.

Social Security’s disability and retirement programs are closely linked, so ideally Congress would address DI’s finances as part of a long-term solvency package for Social Security as a whole — one that extends the solvency of both trust funds well beyond 2033, when the combined trust funds face exhaustion.  Enacting a balanced solvency package before late 2016, however, is highly unlikely.

Surveys find that Americans are willing to pay higher Social Security taxes to preserve and strengthen Social Security for future generations.  Yet some politicians argue for preserving solvency solely through benefit cuts.  Bridging such sharp divisions will be difficult, and holding DI beneficiaries hostage by refusing to reallocate payroll taxes wouldn’t make the task any easier — or success more likely.

Reallocation is unavoidable.  Even if policymakers miraculously agreed on a balanced solvency package by 2016, any changes in DI benefits or eligibility would phase in gradually and hence do little to replenish the DI trust fund by 2016.

Reallocation is a historically noncontroversial action that policymakers have often taken to shift resources between the two trust funds, in either direction.  Both the Bush and Clinton Administrations endorsed it in the early 1990s, and Congress enacted it in 1994 without a single dissenting voice.

Reallocation isn’t a “patch” or “kicking the can down the road,” as some contend — descriptions appropriate for the recent House-approved bill to extend the Highway Trust Fund by ten months, or Congress’ repeated one-year delays in implementing scheduled cuts in Medicare payments to doctors.  A payroll tax reallocation will keep Social Security’s disability and retirement programs solvent for another 15 to 20 years.

And reallocation doesn’t preclude additional actions to strengthen Disability Insurance.  Reversing the recent decline in Social Security’s administrative funding would allow the Social Security Administration to process claims more quickly and ensure that recipients remain on the rolls only as long as they are eligible.  Changes in the process for approving or denying claims might improve the accuracy and consistency of those disability determinations.  We could also test new strategies to help people with disabilities remain in the workforce, as the President’s 2015 budget proposed.

What Difference Would Ryan’s EITC Expansion Make for Childless Workers?

July 29, 2014 at 4:07 pm

We’ve explained that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s proposed expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for childless adults, including non-custodial parents, would encourage work and reduce poverty.  This interactive chart allows you to compare the EITC that childless workers at different income levels would earn under current law and under the Ryan expansion, which mirrors a proposal from President Obama.

For example, the EITC for single childless worker making poverty-level wages (we estimate $12,566 in 2015) would jump from about $170 under current law to about $840 in 2015 under the Ryan and Obama proposals.

The Ryan and Obama plans would, starting in 2015: lower the EITC’s eligibility age for workers not raising minor children from 25 to 21, double the maximum credit to about $1,000, and phase in the credit more quickly as a worker’s income rises.  (Unlike Chairman Ryan, President Obama would also allow workers aged 65 and 66 to claim the credit.)

The big difference between the Ryan and Obama plans, as we’ve noted, is the proposed “offsets” to pay for them (not reflected in the interactive above).  Several of Ryan’s offsets would hit low-income and other vulnerable families, while the President would pay for hisEITC expansion by closing tax loopholes for wealthy taxpayers.

Nevertheless, it’s encouraging that leading members of both parties recognize the need to do more for the lone group that the federal tax system taxes into poverty.

Ryan’s “Opportunity Grant” Would Likely Force Cuts in Food and Housing Assistance

July 29, 2014 at 11:59 am

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan maintains that consolidating 11 safety-net and related programs into a single “Opportunity Grant” would give states the flexibility to provide specialized services to low-income people.  But providing these additional services would require cutting assistance funded through the Opportunity Grant to other needy people.  And because SNAP (formerly food stamps) and housing assistance together make up more than 80 percent of the Opportunity Grant, the cuts would almost certainly reduce families’ access to these programs, which are effective at reducing poverty — particularly deep poverty.

SNAP is an entitlement, which means that anyone who qualifies under program rules can receive benefits, and is heavily focused on the poor.  Over 91 percent of SNAP benefits go to households with incomes below the poverty line, and 55 percent goes to households in deep poverty — that is, households with cash incomes below half of the poverty line (about $9,800 for a family of three in 2013).

As a result, SNAP kept 4.9 million people out of poverty in 2012, including 2.2 million children.  It also lifted 1.4 million children out of deep poverty, more than any other benefit program.

Similarly, housing vouchers and other rental assistance lifted 2.8 million people — including 1 million children — out of poverty in 2012.

Chairman Ryan’s proposal to add new work requirements and provide individualized services to recipients of Opportunity Grant-funded assistance would surely require new staff and significantly raise administrative costs.  States would likely turn to SNAP for at least some offsetting savings:  it alone makes up more than half of the resources in the Opportunity Grant, and the Ryan proposal ends SNAP as an entitlement, eliminating eligible families’ guarantee to food assistance.  Rental assistance, which makes up nearly a quarter of the Opportunity Grant, is another likely target of cuts — though even today it serves only one in four eligible low-income families due to limited funding.

Whatever merit Chairman Ryan’s proposal for personalized services has, his Opportunity Grant could not possibly reach as many families as these existing programs serve.

Cutting food and housing assistance that lifts millions of people out of poverty and is effective at reducing hunger and homelessness in order to provide additional services to a smaller number of poor households isn’t a sound way to reduce poverty.