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State and Local Taxes Penalize the Poor and Benefit the Rich

Americans have become increasingly critical of public policy as a means of addressing social problems.  Many believe that these policies don’t work; the reality is that public policies are often subverted in ways that make them ineffective or even counterproductive.

Take taxes and inequality.  As Danny Vinik, writing in the New Republic explains:

The vast majority of Americans—both liberals and conservatives—believe that state and local taxes should also be progressive. That’s the finding of a new report released by WalletHub Monday. The researchers surveyed 1,050 Americans on what they thought the combined rate of state and local taxes should be at various income levels. Not surprisingly, liberals want the rate structure to be a bit more progressive than conservatives do, but their responses [as the following chart shows] were relatively similar:

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However the reality is quite different.  State and local taxes are actually quite regressive.  The Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy studied the “fairness of state and local tax systems by measuring the state and local taxes that will be paid in 2015 by different [non-elderly] income groups as a share of their incomes.”  They did this state by state and, as presented below, on an overall basis.  As we can see, the lower the income, the greater the state and local tax burden.

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Here are some of the report’s key findings:

  • Virtually every state tax system is fundamentally unfair, taking a much greater share of income from low- and middle-income families than from wealthy families. The absence of a graduated personal income tax and overreliance on consumption taxes exacerbate this problem.
  • In the 10 states with the most regressive tax structures (the Terrible 10) the bottom 20 percent pay up to seven times as much of their income in taxes as their wealthy counterparts. Washington State is the most regressive, followed by Florida, Texas, South Dakota, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Arizona, Kansas, and Indiana.
  • Heavy reliance on sales and excise taxes are characteristics of the most regressive state tax systems. Six of the 10 most regressive states derive roughly half to two-thirds of their tax revenue from sales and excise taxes, compared to a national average of roughly one-third . Five of these states do not levy a broad-based personal income tax (four do not have any taxes on personal income and one state only applies its personal income tax to interest and dividends) while four have a personal income tax rate structure that is flat or virtually flat.
  • States commended as “low tax” are often high tax states for low-and middle-income families. The 10 states with the highest taxes on the poor are Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, and Washington. Seven of these are also among the “terrible ten” because they are not only high tax for the poorest, but low tax for the wealthiest.

In short, we know how to construct tax policies that can lessen inequality, but we’re not using state and local taxes to do it.

Cross-posted at Reports from the Economic Front and Pacific Standard.

Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

Chart of the Week: 1,500 Estimates Suggest a Higher Minimum Wage Will Have No Effect on Jobs

One of the arguments against an increase in the minimum wage is that it will lead to higher unemployment.  One can make theoretical arguments for and against this proposition.  And, of course, the income gains from an increase in the minimum wage are likely to produce overall benefits for both low wage workers and the economy as a whole even if there is a rise in unemployment.

Economists have tried to estimate the employment effects of a rise in the minimum wage.  As a Vox article describes, two of them, Hristos Doucouliagos and T.D Stanley, looked at almost 1,500 estimates of the effects of minimum wage increases on employment and found that the estimates “clustered right around zero effect, but with more of those estimates showing a slight downward pressure on employment.”

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They concluded, “with sixty-four studies containing approximately fifteen hundred estimates, we have reason to believe that if there is some adverse employment effect from minimum wage rises, it must be of a small and policy-irrelevant magnitude.”

Originally posted at Reports from the Economic Front.

Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

Voters are Reasonably Disappointed in the Democratic Party

Electing Republicans will certainly not improve things, but it is hard to blame people for feeling that the Democratic Party has abandoned them.

President Obama had hoped that recent signs of economic strength would benefit Democrats in the recently completed election.  Job creation has picked up, the unemployment rate is falling, and growth is stronger. Yet, most Americans have not enjoyed any real gains during this so-called expansionary period.

The following two charts highlight this on the national level.  The first shows how income gains made during the expansion period have been divided between the top 1% and everyone else.   There is not a lot to say except that there is not a lot of sharing going on.

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The second shows trends in real median household net worth.  While declines in median net worth are not surprising in a recession, what is noteworthy is that median net worth has continued to decline during this expansion.  Adjusted for inflation the average household is poorer now than in 1989.

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Oregon provides a good example of state trends.  The chart below shows that the poverty rate in Oregon is actually higher now than it was during the recession.

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The poverty rate for children is even higher. In 2013, 21.6 percent of all Oregon children lived in families in poverty.

And, not surprisingly, communities of color experience poverty rates far higher than non-Hispanic whites.

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More promising is movement building to directly advance community interests.  One example: voters in five states passed measures to boost minimum wages.   Another was the successful effort in Richmond, California to elect progressives to the city council over candidates heavily supported by Chevron, which hoped to dominate the council and overcome popular opposition to its environmental and health and safety policies.

Originally posted at Reports from the Economic FrontCross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

Length of the Workweek in International Perspective

Iceland continues to experiment with new ways to promote majority living standards. According to the Icelandic Grapevine, a bill has been submitted to the Icelandic parliament that would shorten the workweek.  More specifically, it would change the definition of a full time workweek to 35 hours instead of the current 40 and the full workday to 7 hours rather than the current 8.

As the Grapevine reports:

The bill points out that other countries which have shorter full time work weeks, such as Denmark, Spain, Belgium, Holland and Norway, actually experience higher levels of productivity. At the same time, Iceland ranked poorly in a recent OECD report on the balance between work and rest, with Iceland coming out in 27th place out of 36 countries.

The bill also points out that a recent Swedish initiative to shorten the full time work day to six hours has been going well, with some Icelanders calling for the idea to be taken up here. In addition, the bill also cites gender studies expert Thomas Brorsen Smidt’s proposal to shorten it even further, to four hours.

There is certainly significant variation among countries in the length of the workweek, as the following information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows:

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In 2011 the average annual hours worked per employed person in the U.S. was 1758.  The number for French workers was 1476.  It was 1411 for German workers.  Assuming a 40 hour workweek, the average U.S. worker had a work year more than two months longer than the average German worker.  It is also worth noting that while all the countries that reported data for the entire period 1979 to 2011 showed reductions in work time, the reduction was the smallest in the U.S.

Although it is not easy to establish a clear relationship between work hours and productivity, there is reason to believe that the relationship may be inverse.  In other words, the shorter the workweek the more productive we are. It would certainly be nice, for many reasons, if someone in the U.S. Congress followed the lead of Iceland and introduced  a bill to reduce work time in the U.S.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

Minimum Wage Hikes Work

As workers battle to raise the minimum wage it is nice to see more evidence that doing so helps both low wage workers and state economies.

Thirteen states raised their respective minimum wages in 2014:  AZ, CA, CT, FL, MO, MT, NJ, NY, OH, OR, RI, VT, and WA.  Elise Gould, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, compared labor market changes in these thirteen states with changes in the rest of the states from the first half of 2013 to the first half of 2014.

Economic analyst Jared Bernstein summarizes the results as follows:

[Gould] compares the 10th percentile [lowest earners] wage growth among these thirteen states that increased their minimums with the rest that did not. The results are the first two bars in the figure below.

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Real wages for low-wage workers rose by just about 1% over the past year in the states that raised their minimum wages, and were flat (down 0.1%) in the other states.

OK, but did those increases bite into employment growth, as opponents typically insist must be the case? Not according to the other two sets of bars. They show that payroll employment growth was slightly faster in states that raised, and the decline in unemployment, slightly greater.

In short, raising the minimum wage did boost the earnings of those at the bottom of the income distribution.  Moreover, workers in states that raised the minimum wage also enjoyed greater employment growth and a greater decline in unemployment than did workers in states that did not.

Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

Saturday Stat: 23% of U.S. Children Live in Poverty

If the well-being of our children is an indicator of the health of our society we definitely should be concerned.  Almost one-fourth of all children in the U.S. live in poverty.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation publishes an annual data book on the status of American children.  Here are a few key quotes from 2014 (all data refer to children 18 and under, unless otherwise specified):

  • Nationally, 23 percent of children (16.4 million) lived in poor families in 2012, up from 19 percent in 2005 (13.4 million), representing an increase of 3 million more children in poverty.
  • In 2012, three in 10 children (23.1 million) lived in families where no parent had full-time, year-round employment. Since 2008, the number of such children climbed by 2.9 million.
  • Across the nation, 38 percent of children (27.8 million) lived in households with a high housing cost burden in 2012, compared with 37 percent in 2005 (27.4 million).

As alarming as these statistics are, they hide the terrible and continuing weight of racism.  Emily Badger, writing in the Washington Post, produced the following charts based on tables from the data book.

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Children live in poverty because they live in families in poverty.  Sadly, despite the fact that we have been in a so-called economic expansion since 2009, most working people continue to struggle.  The Los Angeles Times reported that “four out of 10 American households were straining financially five years after the Great Recession — many struggling with tight credit, education debt and retirement issues, according to a new Federal Reserve survey of consumers.”

Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

Saturday Stat: Median Household Wealth Fell by 1/3 since 2003

According to a June 2014 Russell Sage Foundation report, the average U.S. household experienced a real wealth decline of more than one-third over the 10 years ending in 2013.

Table 1 shows that the net worth of the median household fell from $87,992 in 2003 to $56,335 in 2013, for a decline of 36%.  In fact, the last ten years were hard on the overwhelming majority of American households.  Only the top 2 groups enjoyed wealth gains over the period.  Also noteworthy is the tiny net worth of households below the median.

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Figure 1 provides a longer term perspective on wealth movements.  We can see that most households enjoyed growing wealth from 1984 to the 2007 crisis, with wealth falling across the board since.  However, the median household is now significantly poorer than it was in 1984.  Only the richer households managed to maintain most of their earlier gains in wealth.

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These trends highlight the fact that we have a growing inequality of wealth, as well as of income, and they are not likely to reverse on their own.

Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

Saturday Stat: World’s Top Military Spender

According to the Stockholm International Peace Institute, the United States remains the world’s top military spender. In fact, U.S. military spending equals the combined military spending of the next ten countries.  And most of those are U.S. allies.

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Although declining in real terms, the U.S. military budget remains substantial and a huge drain on our public resources.  As the following chart shows, military spending absorbs 57% of our federal discretionary budget.

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 Notice that many so-called non-military discretionary budget categories also include military related spending. For example: Veteran’s Benefits, International Affairs, Energy and the Environment, and Science.   We certainly seem focused on a certain kind of security.

Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.