|Europe (including UK)||UK|
|GDP (purchasing power parity)||$19.18 trillion (2016 est.)||$2.788 trillion (2016 est.)|
|GDP (official exchange rates)||$16.27 trillion (2015 est.)||$2.65 trillion (2015 est.)|
|GDP growth||1.9% (2016 est.)||1.8% (2016 est.)|
|GDP – per capita (PPP)||$37,800 (2016 est.)||$42,500 (2016 est.)|
|industry share of GDP||25.50%||19.20%|
|Labour force||232.9 million||33.17 million (2016 est.)|
|Unemployment||9.5% (2015 est.)||5.1% (2016 est.)|
|Population below poverty line||9.80%||15% (2013 est.)|
|Budget surplus (+) or deficit (-)||-3% of GDP||-3.8% of GDP (2016 est.)|
|Public Debt||86.8% of GDP (2014)||92.2% of GDP (2016 est.)|
|Inflation rate||0.1% (2015 est.)||0.5% (2016 est.)|
|Population||515,052,778 (July 2016 est.)||64,430,428 (July 2016 est.)|
|65 years and over||19.1% (2016 est.)||17.90%|
|Life expectancy at birth||80.2 years||80.7 years|
|Hospital bed density||5.4 beds/1,000 population||2.9 beds/1,000 population (2011)|
|Infant mortality rate||4 deaths/1,000 live births||4.3 deaths/1,000 live births|
|Source: CIA world factbook [https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/]|
Obama was elected in 2008 during the height of the crisis with much expectations that he would improve the conditions of the least well-off in American society. As his term nears its end, I use the latest OECD data to assess how unemployed individuals fare now compared to both other developed countries and to when he started his term.
In a nutshell, I show that in all plausible scenarios, individuals in the initial phase of unemployment are worse off in the US than in a median OECD or EU country and their relative situation has gotten worse since 2007, especially if they are in the middle class.
The OECD has data on the net replacement rates for six family types in the initial phase of unemployment. The latest data available is 2014 so it is in principle plausible – though unlikely – that the situation has improved massively in the last two years and that this is not captured by my data. Note further the emphasis on the initial phase of unemployment: after a certain time in unemployment – which varies by country – unemployed lose eligibility to certain benefits (or experience falls in the replacement rate).
The OECD tax-benefit Model allows you to specify the marital situation of the family (single, one earner married couple, and two earners married couple) and whether they have children (in this case no children versus two children) for different levels of the average wage.
For simplicity I show the replacement rate for a case when the family does not qualify for cash housing assistance or social assistance in either the in-work or out-of-work situation. I also do not consider the case of earners with 150% of average wage.
The situation in 2014
Figure 1 shows the difference between the US and the EU/OECD average replacement rates in 2014. As an example consider the case of a single person with no children earning 67% of the average wage prior to becoming unemployed. In the US, the person would get 61% out of work income as a percentage of previous earnings equal to 67% of the average wage. The equivalent OECD median is 65% while the EU median is 68% so the gap between the US and the OECD median is 4 percentage points while it is 7 percentage points between the US and the EU.
Comparing different family and income situations reveals that the US is least generous compared to the OECD and EU median for ‘middle class’ (100% of average wages) families that are composed of lone parents with 2 children. The next biggest gap between the US and the OECD/EU median is for low income families with either one earner couple or a lone parent.
By contrast, low income families (67% of average wage) with two earners with or without two children would fare almost exactly the same in terms of replacement rate in the median OECD and EU country as in the US.
Figure 1: The difference between the US and the EU/OECD average replacement rates in 2014
In Figure 2, I show the 2014 cross-national variation in the replacement rate for a single earner with no children that does not qualify for cash housing assistance or social assistance and had previous earnings of 67% of average wage. This reveals that the US is not the worse country among developed countries (the worse is not surprisingly the UK – though note that the situation does not quite look as dire for the UK if the family qualifies for cash housing assistance). But it is located in the bottom half of the ranking.
Figure 2: 2014 replacement rate for a single earner with no children that does not qualify for cash housing assistance or social assistance and had previous earnings of 67% AW
Changes since 2007
In 2014, the average across all family types and both income situations for the US is 59% compared to 70% for the OECD median and 71% for the EU median. This represents a fall from 2007 where the average was 62% for the US, 60% for the OECD and 71% for the EU median.
Figure 3 shows how the gap between the US and the EU has evolved between 2007 and 2014 for different family-income scenarios. Positive values indicate that there has been an increase in the gap between what a person would get in a median EU country and what they would get in the US. Thus for instance, we see that the biggest increases in the gap has been for one earner married couple with no children that earned 100% of the average wage prior to becoming unemployed and a single person with no children also earning 100% of the average wage prior to becoming unemployed. The next biggest increase has occurred for a lone parent with two children.
Thus, over the Obama presidency, the welfare of vulnerable middle class families in the US relative to their counterpart in the Europe has gotten worse. This is a striking result given the significant retrenchment of European welfare states that has taken place in Europe between 2008 and 2014 (the period under consideration here).
Figure 3: The difference between the EU-US gap in 2007 and in 2014
Disappointing but not surprising
While disappointing, the falling welfare of the unemployed in the US is not entirely surprising from a theoretical perspective. The welfare state literature makes clear that liberal welfare regimes’ structure (e.g. targeted means tested benefits) limit the popular support for generous welfare state benefits for the unemployed that are seen as particularly undeserving.
As Rehm brillantly discusses in his latest book “Risk inequality and Welfare state“, countries with concentrated risks of unemployment among low income workers are less likely to exhibit pro-welfare state cross-class coalitions. At the same time, the US type of capitalism limits the power of the unions while making it unlikely that employers will consent – in the words of Korpi – to more generous social policies (see Varieties of Capitalism literature).
As a result, where there is no clear efficiency imperative (e.g. Obamacare in the context of objective inefficiencies in the health care sector in the US), it is therefore difficult even for a left leaning government to undertake an expansion of welfare state policies.
Excellent recent speech by Willem Buiter on “Unemployment and inflation in the Eurozone: why has demand management failed so badly?”. As always he makes many insightfull points, but I just highlight two which I found particularly important.
The first concerns the issue independence and the scope of the mandate of the ECB:
“The notion that central banks should focus exclusively on their mandates and not be active participants in wider public policy debates, let alone be active players in the negotiations and bargaining processes that produce the political compromises that will help shape the economic, social and political evolution of our societies is, I believe, sound. Alan Blinder described this need for modesty and restraint for central bankers as “sticking to their knitting”. Both fiscal policy and structural reform have clear and often significant distributional consequences. They are, therefore, deeply political. As regards fiscal policy, this is so obvious it does not require elaboration. But structural reform too, including labour market liberalization, opening up the professions, and opening up product market to greater domestic or external competition, is not just about efficiency gains or the size of the pie, but about the distribution of the pie. What looks as an artificial barrier to entry to an economist is a source of rents to the protected worker, professional or firm. When central bankers take part in the often very partisan political debates on fiscal policy and structural reform, they compromise and undermine their independence.”
“The President of the ECB, Mario Draghi, like his predecessor Jean‐Claude Trichet, is actively trying to influence and shape euro area (EA) policies in the areas of fiscal policy and structural reform, using a range of possible monetary policy interventions as sticks or carrots to get national governments and the European Commission to do what he considers to be ‘the right things’. His recent address at the Jackson Hole Conference organized by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas demonstrates how broad the range of economic issues is on which the President of the ECB feels comfortable to lecture, some might saybadger, the political leadership of the EA (Draghi (2014)). Regardless of the economic merits of Draghinomics, there is something worrying, from a constitutional/legal/political/legitimacy perspective, if unelected central bank technocrats become key movers and shakers in the design and implementation of reforms and policies in areas well beyond their mandate and competence.”
The second concerns the current fallacies that hinder an appropriate policy response:
“In the Euro area, demand stimulus through fiscal policy has been severely handicapped by the widespread acceptance of the Triad of Teutonic Fallacies. The first of these is that there are reckless and/or stupid borrowers/debtors but no reckless and/or stupid lenders/creditors. As we are talking about the same transactions, that position is rather difficult to defend. It is, however, firmly believed by many living north of the Rhine, and it gives the creditors a sense of moral superiority or even outrage that diminishes their cognitive capabilities. The second fallacy is that expansionary fiscal policy is contractionary. There are indeed models in which this is the case. Provided any fiscal deficit expansion resulting from a fiscal stimulus is monetised, however, this will never be the case in a world with excess capacity and inflation below target. The third fallacy is that any increase in the balance sheet of the central bank will inevitably get monetised and lead to an undesirable increase in the rate of inflation. The fact that this is analytical nonsense does not mean it is not an influential view.”
Latest Eurostat labour costs statistics are out. The first figure shows the regional variation of hourly labour costs expressed in euros in 2012.
Most – though not all – Western European regions have average hourly costs superior to 30 Euros while Eastern European regions (including parts of Eastern Germany) all have less than 10 Euros average hourly costs. In between those two groups lie parts of Spain and parts of the UK, as well as Portugal, with between 10 and 20 Euros average hourly costs.
The second figure shows national differences in hourly costs expressed in Euros as well as adjusted for purchasing power (i.e. differences in cost of living in different countries). Not surprisingly, the variation in purchasing power terms is lower but does not erase cross-national differences.
It’s also interesting to note that the UK – where the immigration debate is currently heavily skewed against immigration – average hourly labour costs adjusted are lower than than the EU28 average.
Consistent with previous trends in reforms of labour market policies, the UK government has announced yet another restriction on unemployment benefit claimants. The striking thing about these reforms is not that they are unlikely to be effective, nor that even if they were effective they probably wouldn’t make much of a difference in reducing the unemployment rate. Instead, the main issue is that they completely misrepresent the nature and extent of the problem.
Two sets of claims generally underpin the rhetoric of these reforms. The first is that benefit recipients fraud and that one must therefore restrict their access to prevent them from doing so. As official statistics (see page 13) themselves reveal, the amount of fraud is in fact very low: fraud cost only about 2.6% of expenditure on income support and 2.9% of spending on Job seeker allowance (see table below).
The second claim is that these policies simply cost too much and that the system is too generous in the UK. To assess the validity of this perception, I look at 2009 spending data on various labour market policies (from the OECD statistics website). One should distinguish between so called active labour market policies that include training schemes, employment incentives, rehabilitation programs, etc, and passive labour market policies that are mainly composed of traditional unemployment benefits.
Starting with the former, the table below shows that the UK ranks 21st among developed countries in terms of spending on active labour market policies expressed as a percentage of GDP. Scandinavian countries and continental European countries spend important amounts on these policies, while the US, Australia and Canada, along with some eastern European countries spend much less. With respect to passive labour market policies (again expressed as a percentage of GDP), the UK ranks 31st among developed countries… If one divides the spending on these policies by the unemployment rate to get a measure of relative ‘effort’ given the ‘need’, the picture still looks bleak for the UK’s unemployed.
Of course there is significant evidence that the design of unemployment benefits (and other social policies) has important effects on recipients’ incentives to return to work. But the paradox is that as one reduces the amount that unemployed can claim, their incentive to actively seek work to avoid losing benefits actually falls (i.e. the cost of non-compliance with benefit schemes’ requirements decreases as the amount of the benefit is reduced).
In addition, for active labour market programs to be effective they need to be well-funded. In other words, improving incentives can only achieve so much if unemployed are not properly trained, there are no funds to promote their mobility, and the net gains of employment are low because an insufficient number of full time jobs . Given that the level of fraud is low and that spending on labour market policies is comparatively small, it makes no sense for the government to try to further restrict eligibility and add sanctions (on a benefit system that has already been significantly ‘activated’). Instead, there is a need to improve training and access to education, and to support aggregate demand (instead of tightening budgets) to increase the number of vacancies that have no yet recovered:
My latest paper on the politics of temporary work regulation in Western Europe.
(Published online before print July 2)
Turning to 2012, a lot of countries have seen their levels of public debt rise (note that Greece prior to the bailout reached roughly 120% of public debt in 2011 – it’s now gone down to French levels). Except for Sweden and Norway that fare much better than the rest, one continues to see an possible trade-off between public and private debt. Spain as is known faces particularly problematic levels of private debt (but note also the Netherlands and Denmark).
This recent issue covers the introduction of patient choice in Sweden. Two articles discuss the effect of macroeconomic conditions and pre-existing welfare state institutions on demands for redistribution and preferences for welfare state policies, respectively. The effect of credit markets on homelessness and the temporarily of poverty are also investigated. Last but not least, the article by Marx and Picot looks at the preferences of precarious workers as compared to those in permanent employment, while Schmitt, C. and H. Obinger investigate the process of policy diffusion and interpendence for three welfare state policies.
Fredriksson, M., P. Blomqvist, et al. (2013). “The trade-off between choice and equity: Swedish policymakers’ arguments when introducing patient choice.” Journal of European Social Policy 23(2): 192-209.
How do policymakers deal with the tension between choice and equity in healthcare? An analysis and critical examination of Swedish policymakers’ arguments when introducing legislated choice of primary care provider in 2010 shows that even when deciding on a reform with a potentially great impact on distribution of health resources, implications for equity were not systematically addressed. Effects with regards to current patterns of healthcare consumption in the population as well as existing inequalities in health outcomes were not adequately addressed. Neither was the primary are choice reform, which is based on the values of consumerism and individual choice, problematized in relation to current healthcare legislation such as the Health and Medical Services Act. Given that the values of equity and social solidarity have had such a prominent place in Swedish health policy and discourse in past decades, this is a surprising finding. In conclusion, we argue that because inequalities in health constitute one of the main challenges for public health today, the impact of healthcare reforms on equity should receive more attention in policymaking.
Jæger, M. M. (2013). “The effect of macroeconomic and social conditions on the demand for redistribution: A pseudo panel approach.” Journal of European Social Policy 23(2): 149-163.
This paper analyses the effect of macroeconomic and social conditions on the demand for redistribution. Using a synthetic cohort design to generate panel data at the level of socio-demographic groups, analysis of fives waves of data from the European Social Survey (2002–2010) shows that differences across countries in macroeconomic and social conditions have an effect on the demand for redistribution. Consistent with theoretical expectations, economic growth generates a lower demand for redistribution, while higher income inequality generates a higher demand. By contrast, differences across countries in unemployment levels and social expenditure are unrelated to the demand for redistribution. The analysis also suggests that empirical results depend to a considerable extent on the assumptions underlying different methodological approaches.
Jordan, J. (2013). “Policy feedback and support for the welfare state.” Journal of European Social Policy 23(2): 134-148.
How does the structure of social policy institutions shape the level of public support for the welfare state? The policy feedback literature predicts that highly inclusive welfare institutions generate larger bases of public support by shifting the focus away from redistribution and toward common market insecurities felt across classes, while more selective strategies erode support by highlighting the conflicts of interest imbedded in clearly redistributive social programs. This paper expands on existing research by adopting a disaggregated approach to measuring both welfare state structure and public support, uncovering important cross-program variations in public attitudes and welfare state design masked by traditional measures of universality and public support. This project applies this method to public opinion data in 17 advanced capitalist democracies across three policy areas: healthcare, pensions, and unemployment. The findings offer evidence of policy feedback effects.
Lux, M. and M. Mikeszova (2013). “The role of a credit trap on paths to homelessness in the Czech Republic.” Journal of European Social Policy 23(2): 210-223.
This briefing paper aims to show the most common paths to homelessness in a post-socialist state: the Czech Republic. Homelessness in the Czech Republic is worthy of examination because the generous provision of social assistance and tenure security in this country has provided a more secure safety net against homelessness than many other EU member states: yet homelessness has still arisen. The theoretical approach applied in this paper attempts to move beyond the structure–agency debate in the homelessness literature by focusing on the characteristics that most homeless people share on their paths to homelessness. Simple associations among factors associated with homelessness cannot provide a definitive account of the causes of homeless; such data can, however, provide invaluable insights into the constellation of factors that are associated with the phenomenon of homelessness. This briefing paper reveals that the pervasiveness of consumer credit has often been a critical juncture on the pathway to homelessness in the Czech Republic, despite the assistance available from a strong welfare state.
Marx, P. and G. Picot (2013). “The party preferences of atypical workers in Germany.” Journal of European Social Policy 23(2): 164-178.
Are party preferences of atypical workers distinct from those in stable employment? The welfare state literature debates this question, but very few empirical studies have been conducted. We examine the German case, being an example of a welfare state with strong social insurance traditions where the rise of atypical employment has been conspicuous. In particular, we test the argument that preferences of labour market outsiders may not differ because outsiders share households with insiders. We find that labour market status significantly affects party preferences. Compared with standard employees, atypical workers have stronger preferences for small left-wing parties. Living together with a labour market insider neutralizes these party preferences, but this type of household is not very common. Moreover, atypical workers differ from the unemployed by not participating less in elections than insiders. Therefore, it is expedient to distinguish between different types of labour market outsiders.
Schmitt, C. and H. Obinger (2013). “Spatial interdependencies and welfare state generosity in Western democracies, 1960–2000.” Journal of European Social Policy 23(2): 119-133.
For many years comparative welfare state research has been afflicted with a sort of methodological nationalism in the sense that countries were treated as independent units. In line with the recent ‘spatial turn’ in comparative public policy studies, this paper examines with regard to three welfare state programmes whether, in the post-war period, the provision of social rights in 18 Western democracies was shaped by benefit generosity in other countries. We show that diffusion is present but varies by programme and over time. Rather surprisingly, we find that policy diffusion was particularly relevant during the Golden Age.
Snel, E., F. Reelick, et al. (2013). “Time and poverty revisited: A replication of Leisering and Leibfried.” Journal of European Social Policy 23(2): 179-191.
In the late 1990s, the German sociologists Leisering and Leibfried (1999) argued that most poverty is of a temporary nature. In their poverty study in the German city of Bremen, Leisering and Leibfried found that more than half of all social assistance claimants were out of poverty within a year. Based on their work, individualization theorists such as Giddens and Beck argue that ‘for most people poverty is only a temporary experience’. This article replicates Leisering and Leibfried’s study using statistical data about social assistance claiming in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. In doing so we find significant numbers of short-term claimants (about 30 percent), as well as surprisingly large numbers of long-term claimants. One in four Rotterdam social assistance claimants is poor for at least 5 years – more than twice as many as Leisering and Leibfried found in their study. We also show that recurrent benefit spells, for Leisering and Leibfried another typical feature of contemporary poverty, is only the exception in Rotterdam. Leisering and Leibfried (and sociologists such as Giddens and Beck in their footsteps) are wrong in claiming that short poverty experiences are typical for poverty in late-modern society. Persistent poverty is still present in our age and in our cities.