OPEN STAX BOOK Chapter 15 - Poverty and Economic Inequality

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
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poverty linethe specific amount of income one requires for a basic standard of livingpoverty ratepercentage of the population living below the poverty linepoverty trapantipoverty programs set up so that government benefits decline substantially as people earn more income—as a result, working provides little financial gainprogressive tax systema tax system in which the rich pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes, rather than a higher absolute amountquintiledividing a group into fifths, a method economists often use to look at distribution of incomeredistributiontaking income from those with higher incomes and providing income to those with lower incomessafety netthe group of government programs that provide assistance to the poor and the near-poorwealththe sum of the value of all assets, including money in bank accounts, financial investments, a pension fund, and the value of a homeThe Safety NetWe call the group of government programs that assist the poor the safety net. In the United States, prominent safety net programs include Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the earned income tax credit (EITC), Medicaid, and the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).Drawing the Poverty LineWages are influenced by Supply and demand in labor markets influence wages. This can lead to very low incomes for some people and very high incomes for others. Poverty and income inequality are not the same thing. Poverty applies to the condition of people who cannot afford the necessities of life. Income inequality refers to the disparity between those with higher and lower incomes. The poverty rate is what percentage of the population lives below the poverty line, which the amount of income that it takes to purchase the necessities of life determines. Choosing a poverty line will always be somewhat controversial.The Poverty TrapA poverty trap occurs when government-support payments for the poor decline as the poor earn more income. As a result, the poor do not end up with much more income when they work, because the loss of government support largely or completely offsets any income that one earns by working. Phasing out government benefits more slowly, as well as imposing requirements for work as a condition of receiving benefits and a time limit on benefits can reduce the harshness of the poverty trap.Income Inequality: Measurement and CausesMeasuring inequality involves making comparisons across the entire distribution of income, not just the poor. One way of doing this is to divide the population into groups, like quintiles, and then calculate what share of income each group receives. An alternative approach is to draw Lorenz curves, which compare the cumulative income actually received to a perfectly equal distribution of income. Income inequality in the United States increased substantially from the late 1970s and early 1980s into the 2000s. The two most common explanations that economists cite are changes in household structures that have led to more two-earner couples and single-parent families, and the effect of new information and communications technology on wages.Government Policies to Reduce Income InequalityPolicies that can affect the level of economic inequality include redistribution between rich and poor, making it easier for people to climb the ladder of opportunity; and estate taxes, which are taxes on inheritances. Pushing too aggressively for economic equality can run the risk of decreasing economic incentives. However, a moderate push for economic equality can increase economic output, both through methods like improved education and by building a base of political support for market forces.Describe how each of these changes is likely to affect poverty and inequality: A. Incomes rise for low-income and high-income workers, but rise more for the high-income earners. B. Incomes fall for low-income and high-income workers, but fall more for high-income earners.A. Poverty falls, inequality rises. B. Poverty rises, inequality falls.Exercise 15.2 Jonathon is a single father with one child. He can work as a server for $6 per hour for up to 1,500 hours per year. He is eligible for welfare, and so if he does not earn any income, he will receive a total of $10,000 per year. He can work and still receive government benefits, but for every $1 of income, his welfare stipend is $1 less. Create a table similar to Table 15.4 that shows Jonathan's options. Use four columns, the first showing number of hours to work, the second showing his earnings from work, the third showing the government benefits he will receive, and the fourth column showing his total income (earnings + government support). Sketch a labor-leisure diagram of Jonathan's opportunity set with and without government support.Jonathon's options for working and total income are shown in the following table. His labor-leisure diagram is shown in the figure following the table.Exercise 15.3 Imagine that the government reworks the welfare policy that was affecting Jonathan in question 1, so that for each dollar someone like Jonathan earns at work, his government benefits diminish by only 30 cents. Reconstruct the table from question 1 to account for this change in policy. Draw Jonathan's labor-leisure opportunity sets, both for before this welfare program is enacted and after it is enacted.The following table shows a policy where only 30 cents in government support is pulled right back for every $1 of income earned. Jonathon's labor-leisure diagram is shown in the figure following the table. "Opportunity set after program" extends from (0, $16,300) to (1,500, $10,000). "Opportunity set before program" slopes downward from (0, $9,000) to (1,500, $0).We have discovered that the welfare system discourages recipients from working because the more income they earn, the less welfare benefits they receive. How does the earned income tax credit attempt to loosen the poverty trap?The earned income tax credit works like this: a poor family receives a tax break that increases according to how much they work. Families that work more get more. In that sense it loosens the poverty trap by encouraging work. As families earn above the poverty level, the earned income tax credit is gradually reduced. For those near-poor families, the earned income tax credit is a partial disincentive to work.How does the TANF attempt to loosen the poverty trap?TANF attempts to loosen the poverty trap by providing incentives to work in other ways. Specifically, it requires that people work (or complete their education) as a condition of receiving TANF benefits, and it places a time limit on benefits.A group of 10 people have the following annual incomes: $24,000, $18,000, $50,000, $100,000, $12,000, $36,000, $80,000, $10,000, $24,000, $16,000. Calculate the share of total income that each quintile receives from this income distribution. Do the top and bottom quintiles in this distribution have a greater or larger share of total income than the top and bottom quintiles of the U.S. income distribution?A useful first step is to rank the households by income, from lowest to highest. Then, since there are 10 households total, the bottom quintile will be the bottom two households, the second quintile will be the third and fourth households, and so on up to the top quintile. The quintiles and percentage of total income for the data provided are shown in the following table. Comparing this distribution to the U.S. income distribution for 2005, the top quintile in the example has a smaller share of total income than in the U.S. distribution and the bottom quintile has a larger share. This pattern usually means that the income distribution in the example is more equal than the U.S. distribution.Table 15.9 shows the share of income going to each quintile of the income distribution for the United Kingdom in 1979 and 1991. Use this data to calculate what the points on a Lorenz curve would be, and sketch the Lorenz curve. How did inequality in the United Kingdom shift over this time period? How can you see the patterns in the quintiles in the Lorenz curves?Just from glancing at the quintile information, it is fairly obvious that income inequality increased in the United Kingdom over this time: The top quintile is getting a lot more, and the lowest quintile is getting a bit less. Converting this information into a Lorenz curve, however, is a little trickier, because the Lorenz curve graphs the cumulative distribution, not the amount received by individual quintiles. Thus, as explained in the text, you have to add up the individual quintile data to convert the data to this form. The following table shows the actual calculations for the share of income in 1979 versus 1991. The figure following the table shows the perfect equality line and the Lorenz curves for 1979 and 1991. As shown, the income distribution in 1979 was closer to the perfect equality line than the income distribution in 1991—that is, the United Kingdom income distribution became more unequal over time.Using two demand and supply diagrams, one for the low-wage labor market and one for the high-wage labor market, explain how information technology can increase income inequality if it is a complement to high-income workers like salespeople and managers, but a substitute for low-income workers like file clerks and telephone receptionists.In the market for low-wage labor, information technology shifts the demand for low-wage labor to the left. One reason is that technology can often substitute for low-wage labor in certain kinds of telephone or bookkeeping jobs. In addition, information technology makes it easier for companies to manage connections with low-wage workers in other countries, thus reducing the demand for low-wage workers in the United States. In the market for high-wage labor, information technology shifts the demand for high-wage labor to the right. By using the new information and communications technologies, high-wage labor can become more productive and can oversee more tasks than before. The following figure illustrates these two labor markets. The combination of lower wages for low-wage labor and higher wages for high-wage labor means greater inequality.Using two demand and supply diagrams, one for the low-wage labor market and one for the high-wage labor market, explain how a program that increased educational levels for a substantial number of low-skill workers could reduce income inequality.In the market for low-wage labor, a skills program will shift supply to the left, which will tend to drive up wages for the remaining low-skill workers. In the market for high-wage labor, a skills program will shift supply to the right (because after the training program there are now more high-skilled workers at every wage), which will tend to drive down wages for high-skill workers. The combination of these two programs will result in a lesser degree of inequality. The following figure illustrates these two labor markets. In the market for high-wage labor, a skills program will shift supply to the right, which will tend to drive down wages for high-skill workers.Here is one hypothesis: A well-funded social safety net can increase economic equality but will reduce economic output. Explain why this might be so, and sketch a production possibility curve that shows this tradeoff.A very strong push for economic equality might include extremely high taxes on high-wage earners to pay for extremely large government social payments for the poor. Such a policy could limit incentives for the high-wage workers, lock the poor into a poverty trap, and thus reduce output. The PPF in this case will have the standard appearance: it will be downward sloping.Here is a second hypothesis: A well-funded social safety net may lead to less regulation of the market economy. Explain why this might be so, and sketch a production possibility curve that shows this tradeoff.For the second hypothesis, a well-funded social safety net might make people feel that even if their company goes bankrupt or they need to change jobs or industries, they will have some degree of protection. As a result, people may be more willing to allow markets to work without interference, and not to lobby as hard for rules that would prevent layoffs, set price controls, or block foreign trade. In this case, safety net programs that increase equality could also allow the market to work more freely in a way that could increase output. In this case, at least some portion of the PPF between equality and economic output would slope up.Which set of policies is more likely to cause a tradeoff between economic output and equality: policies of redistribution or policies aimed at the ladder of opportunity? Explain how the production possibility frontier tradeoff between economic equality and output might look in each case.Pure redistribution is more likely to cause a sharp tradeoff between economic output and equality than policies aimed at the ladder of opportunity. A production possibility frontier showing a strict tradeoff between economic output and equality will be downward sloping. A PPF showing that it is possible to increase equality, at least to some extent, while either increasing output or at least not diminishing it would have a PPF that first rises, perhaps has a flat area, and then falls.Why is there reluctance on the part of some in the United States to redistribute income so that greater equality can be achieved?Many view the redistribution of income to achieve greater equality as taking away from the rich to pay the poor, or as a "zero sum" game. By taking taxes from one group of people and redistributing them to another, the tax system is robbing some of the American Dream.How is the poverty rate calculated?What is the poverty line?What is the difference between poverty and income inequality?How does the poverty trap discourage people from working?How can the effect of the poverty trap be reduced?Who are the near-poor?What is the safety net?Briefly explain the differences between TANF, the earned income tax credit, SNAP, and Medicaid.Who is included in the top income quintile?What is measured on the two axes of a Lorenz curve?If a country had perfect income equality what would the Lorenz curve look like?How has the inequality of income changed in the U.S. economy since the late 1970s?What are some reasons why a certain degree of inequality of income would be expected in a market economy?What are the main reasons economists give for the increase in inequality of incomes?Identify some public policies that can reduce the level of economic inequality.Describe how a push for economic equality might reduce incentives to work and produce output. Then describe how a push for economic inequality might not have such effects.What goods and services would you include in an estimate of the basic necessities for a family of four?If a family of three earned $20,000, would they be able to make ends meet given the official poverty threshold?Exercise 15.2 and Exercise 15.3 asked you to describe the labor-leisure tradeoff for Jonathon. Since, in the first example, there is no monetary incentive for Jonathon to work, explain why he may choose to work anyway. Explain what the opportunity costs of working and not working might be for Jonathon in each example. Using your tables and graphs from Exercise 15.2 and Exercise 15.3, analyze how the government welfare system affects Jonathan's incentive to work.Explain how you would create a government program that would give an incentive for labor to increase hours and keep labor from falling into the poverty trap.Many critics of government programs to help low- income individuals argue that these programs create a poverty trap. Explain how programs such as TANF, EITC, SNAP, and Medicaid will affect low-income individuals and whether or not you think these programs will benefit families and children.Think about the business cycle: during a recession, unemployment increases; it decreases in an expansionary phase. Explain what happens to TANF, SNAP, and Medicaid programs at each phase of the business cycle (recession, trough, expansion, and peak).Explain how a country may experience greater equality in the distribution of income, yet still experience high rates of poverty. Hint: Look at the Clear It Up "How do governments measure poverty in low-income countries?" and compare to Table 15.5.The demand for skilled workers in the United States has been increasing. To increase the supply of skilled workers, many argue that immigration reform to allow more skilled labor into the United States is needed. Explain whether you agree or disagree.Explain a situation using the supply and demand for skilled labor in which the increased number of college graduates leads to depressed wages. Given the rising cost of going to college, explain why a college education will or will not increase income inequality.What do you think is more important to focus on when considering inequality: income inequality or wealth inequality?To reduce income inequality, should the marginal tax rates on the top 1% be increased?Redistribution of income occurs through the federal income tax and government antipoverty programs. Explain whether or not this level of redistribution is appropriate and whether more redistribution should occur.How does a society or a country make the decision about the tradeoff between equality and economic output? Hint: Think about the political system.Explain what the long- and short-term consequences are of not promoting equality or working to reduce poverty.In country A, the population is 300 million and 50 million people are living below the poverty line. What is the poverty rate?In country B, the population is 900 million and 100 million people are living below the poverty line. What is the poverty rate?Susan is a single mother with three children. She can earn $8 per hour and works up to 2,000 hours per year. However, if she does not earn any income at all, she will receive government benefits totaling $16,000 per year. For every $1 of income she earns, her level of government support will be reduced by $1. Create a table, patterned after Table 15.8. The first column should show Susan's choices of how many hours to work per year, up to 2,000 hours. The second column should show her earnings from work. The third column should show her level of government support, given her earnings. The final column should show her total income, combining earnings and government support.A group of 10 people have the following annual incomes: $55,000, $30,000, $15,000, $20,000, $35,000, $80,000, $40,000, $45,000, $30,000, $50,000. Calculate the share of total income each quintile of this income distribution received. Do the top and bottom quintiles in this distribution have a greater or larger share of total income than the top and bottom quintiles of the U.S. income distribution for 2005?