Free Markets, Free People

Paul Rosenberg

Food Stamps Do Not Increase Employment

You may recall that I questioned the efficacy of Paul Rosenberg, et al.’s argument that increasing food stamp benefits would directly lead to an increase of 9 to 10 million more people being employed:

Without arguing the statistical or modeling specifics behind the chart, there is one glaring item that reveals how much magical thinking went into its creation. By far the most “stimulating” actions set forth are “Temporary Increase in Food Stamps”(calculated to create 9,803,333 jobs), “Extending Unemployment Insurance” (9,236,667 jobs), and “Increased infrastructure Spending” (9,010,000 jobs). The closest tax-cutting measure, according to this analysis, in job creation is a “Payroll Tax Holiday” which is estimated to create 7,253,333 jobs. Do you see the problem?

How, exactly, do food stamps and unemployment benefits create jobs? Arguably, spending on infrastructure could create construction jobs on a temporary basis, although that hasn’t proven to be the case with the stimulus bill that was passed. But there is simply no logic to the idea that providing government benefits to the poor and unemployed will serve to create jobs, much less 9 to 10 million of them. That’s just magical thinking.

[…]

Whatever the virtues of income support, and even if that support will be quickly spent in the economy, there is no justification for concluding that it will expand the economy. At best, it can stabilize a downturn by maintaining some level of consumer spending. But that does not expand the economy in any way, shape or form, and it certainly doesn’t create jobs [at] an unprecedented level as suggested by Rosenberg.

As it turns out, we have plenty of empirical evidence to show that, in fact, increasing food stamp aid does nothing to increase employment. Indeed, for the past decade, the US has dramatically increased the number of participants who receive food stamps to the point that 1 in every 8 Americans now partakes in the program:

The reason for the expansion, as the chart’s creators point out, is that we’ve been pushing food stamps not just on the needy, but on the working poor as well [via: James Joyner]:

States eased limits on people with cars and required fewer office visits from people with jobs. The federal government now gives bonuses to states that enroll the most eligible people.

A self-reinforcing cycle kicked in: outreach attracted more workers, and workers built support for outreach. In a given month, nearly 90 percent of food stamp recipients still have incomes below the federal poverty line, according to the Department of Agriculture. But among families with children, the share working rose to 47 percent in 2008, from 26 percent in the mid-1990s, and the share getting cash welfare fell by two-thirds.

Whether this is a good policy or not is neither here nor there. Instead, what should be glaringly evident is that there is no correlation between food stamp distribution and job creation. Over the past decade, as the number of people using food stamps rose from around 17 million to almost 35 million, the economy has both created and shed millions of jobs. For example, since December 2007, when the recession officially began, the economy lost 8.4 million jobs according to the Labor Department. Yet in that same time, according to the chart above, around 7 million more people received food stamps (rising from about 27 million to 34 million). If the “food stamps = job creation” were correct, how did we lose all of those jobs?

The inescapable conclusion is that food stamps do not create jobs, and at best only serve to keep some minimal level of economic activity going during down times.

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Magical Thinking

The progressive base is having conniptions over the failure of President Obama to get his agenda through Congress despite having supermajorities. Now that Obama is making token gestures (however feeble [via:HA]) towards fiscal sanity, they are experiencing political apoplexy:

As noted in quick hits by BDB and rayj, [UPDATE] and by David in a diary that just caused me to push back this diary’s publication time, Obama has now gone off the deep end. After passing a stimulus that most economists (not just liberal ones) said was too small, and that was made even more inadequate by being heavily tilted toward poor-performing tax-cuts, Obama is now intentionally recreating FDR’s mistake of 1937, when he prematurely cut back spending to try to balance the budget, and sent the country into a new recession.

[…]

Specifically: He’s going to announce a spending freeze on domestic programs (but not, of course, on the military) that is “projected to save $250 billion.” The rationale is that he wants to appease folks worried about runaway deficits. Which is just what FDR was worried about in 1937.

This is Bush-style idiocy. There is no other word for it.

The cause of this consternation is magical thinking on the part of the author, Paul Rosenberg.

Here, to remind you, is the chart I put together during the stimulus debate, showing, among other things, the relative ineffectiveness of tax cuts vs. spending in generating jobs, which is the key to getting the nation out of this recession–the only way that we can rationally hope to start bringing down the deficits:

While some tax cuts are much better than the real stinkers, it’s virtually a given that once Obama starts talking about tax cuts, the GOP is going to start demanding that Bush’s tax cuts be made permanent. Not only–as you can see from the chart–are these about the least helpful tax cuts of all, they are also heavily skewed toward helping the rich and the super-rich.

If you look closely at the chart you will be unsurprised to find that government spending is calculated to provide substantially more “bang for the buck” in creating wealth and jobs. That’s unsurprising because this chart is intended to support a progressive prescription for the economy. Of course it will show government as the answer.

Without arguing the statistical or modeling specifics behind the chart, there is one glaring item that reveals how much magical thinking went into its creation. By far the most “stimulating” actions set forth are “Temporary Increase in Food Stamps”(calculated to create 9,803,333 jobs), “Extending Unemployment Insurance” (9,236,667 jobs), and “Increased infrastructure Spending” (9,010,000 jobs). The closest tax-cutting measure, according to this analysis, in job creation is a “Payroll Tax Holiday” which is estimated to create 7,253,333 jobs. Do you see the problem?

How, exactly, do food stamps and unemployment benefits create jobs? Arguably, spending on infrastructure could create construction jobs on a temporary basis, although that hasn’t proven to be the case with the stimulus bill that was passed. But there is simply no logic to the idea that providing government benefits to the poor and unemployed will serve to create jobs, much less 9 to 10 million of them. That’s just magical thinking.

Rosenberg provides this explanation for the employment fairy (from Mark Zandi of Moody’s Economy.com):

Income support

The House stimulus plan includes some $100 billion over two years in income support for those households under significant financial pressure. This includes extra benefits for workers who exhaust their regular 26 weeks of unemployment insurance benefits; expanded food stamp payments; and help meeting COBRA payments for unemployed workers trying to hold onto their health insurance.

Increased income support has been part of the federal response to most recessions, and for good reason: It is the most efficient way to prime the economy’s pump. Simulations of the Moody’s Economy.com macroeconomic model show that every dollar spent on UI benefits generates an estimated $1.63 in near-term GDP.x Boosting food stamp payments by $1 increases GDP by $1.73 (see Table 2). People who receive these benefits are hard pressed and will spend any financial aid they receive very quickly.

Another advantage is that these programs are already operating and can quickly deliver a benefit increase to recipients. The virtue of extending UI benefits goes beyond simply providing aid for the jobless to more broadly shoring up household confidence. Nothing is more psychologically debilitating, even to those still employed, than watching unemployed friends and relatives lose their sources of support.xi Increasing food stamp benefits has the added virtue of helping people ineligible for UI such as part-time workers.

Whatever the virtues of income support, and even if that support will be quickly spent in the economy, there is no justification for concluding that it will expand the economy. At best, it can stabilize a downturn by maintaining some level of consumer spending. But that does not expand the economy in any way, shape or form, and it certainly doesn’t create jobs an unprecedented level as suggested by Rosenberg.

Indeed, in order to give money to the poor and jobless, the government has to take money fr0m someplace else. Since it doesn’t create anything, the government will either (i) tax those who are working and creating wealth at higher rates, (ii) borrow money, or (iii) print money. Again, these are not wealth producing actions, but instead wealth destroying ones. It is true that, assuming such income support shortens a downturn, tax receipts will eventually outpace the costs of funding those supports. What is not true is that the government benefits will create jobs.

On the one hand, of course, I don’t want to discourage the left from turning on Obama (enemy of my enemy and all that). It just pains me to see it done based on such absurd premises.

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