Saturday, February 13, 2016

Revisiting aggregate social welfare spending of the United States and the social democracies

Here, I revisit a previous post, or specifically, this graph by the OECD:

This graph shows the total (public + private) social welfare spending of OECD countries as a percentage of GDP. The take-home is clear: the United States does not actually have a less expensive social welfare system than the social democracies. Once we account for private spending on social welfare, it is clear that the American social welfare system costs just as much as the social democratic model.

Two things prompted me to return to this graph. First, the OECD updated the web page the graph was on (my original post linked to the page in 2014), and the graph is no longer at that link. Thus, it is no longer clear where the data from the graph comes from. Second, I didn't initially realize how important this graph is. This graph deserves its own post.

The page where I got the above graph is actually the home of OECD's social expenditure (SOCX) dataset. SOCX compares national expenditures on social welfare and--according to this dataset--the social democracies spend about 30% of GDP on social welfare, the United States about 20%. This only includes spending on government benefits.

However, in 2011, a team of OECD researchers realized that these data were extremely misleading and detailed their findings in a working paper, Is the European Welfare State Really More Expensive? (Adema, Fron & Ladaique). I'll focus on their findings for the United States and the social democracies since this is my primary concern on this blog. There was also a 2014 update, which we'll take a look at after reviewing SOCX methodology and the refinements of Adema, Fron & Ladaique.

First, the SOCX dataset greatly overestimates the the social spending in the social democracies. The biggest issue is cash benefits. In the United States, cash benefits (like Social Security payments) are not subject to income taxes. But that's not so in the social democracies, and the result is that a huge amount of social welfare benefits are actually returned to the welfare system through income taxes. Adema, Fron & Ladaique refer to this as "claw-back." Clearly, it makes no sense to count every dollar in social welfare benefits as a social expenditure, since much of those benefits will be taxed and thus returned to the welfare state. In Denmark, the amount of public social welfare benefits that are returned to the welfare state by direct taxation amounts to a whopping 4% of GDP. Clearly, SOCX is wrong to disregard this.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Comparing new parent social welfare benefits of the United States vs the social democracies

Courtney Jung points out the hypocrisy of American social welfare benefits for new mothers (emphasis added):
In 2010, the Fair Labor Standards Act was amended to require employers to "provide reasonable break time" and space for women to pump breast milk at work. To be clear, those breaks are unpaid, and the Department of Health and Human Services encourages employers to have mothers come in early or stay late to make up the time they spend pumping. Since 2013, the Affordable Care Act has required insurance companies to cover the cost of a breast pump for new mothers.

Such policies have quietly realigned our expectations of what new mothers should do to care for their newborns, making mothers work harder, for less pay, under conditions that risk compromising their dignity and professionalism.

They are also explicitly conceived as business-friendly strategies that enable women to comply with the injunction to breastfeed at no cost to employers. Who needs a lavish European-style maternity leave when we've got breast pumps?