Being unemployed in the US after the Obama presidency

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.

OECD data

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

EU US gap in 2014

Cross-national variation

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

Figure 3

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

Change between 2014 and 2007.jpgDisappointing 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.

Regulations in ‘rigid’ labour markets are less likely to be enforced

How difficult is it to fire a worker in different countries?

To answer this question, most social scientists have created many indicators that capture the conditions, costs and uncertainty associated with firing an employee.

For instance the OECD Employment Protection Legislation (EPL) index measures “the procedures and costs involved in dismissing individuals or groups of workers and the procedures involved in hiring workers on fixed-term or temporary work agency contracts”

The determinants and consequences of EPL

This index is then used in statistical analysis to assess the impact of EPL on economic outcomes, such as unemployment, or to identify the determinants of EPL reforms, for instance partisanship.

The conventional wisdom is that EPL has adverse economic consequences (studies by IMF and OECD, Layard, Botero and others), but the stability of the findings to different specification has been contested (for instance see work by Baker, Avdagic and others).

Employment Protection Legislation: rules versus enforcement

For a long time a more obvious problem has been that legal restrictions on firing can only be expected to have any effects on labour market performance if the legislation is actually enforced on the ground.

The issue here is not so much that employment protection legislation might not enforced (which is likely) but more importantly that it might be enforced to varying degrees in different countries in ways that we cannot observed.

New database on enforcement

This shortcoming is now being partly addressed in recent research by Kanbur and Ronconi published in the Centre for Economic Policy Research.

In a shorter version of the paper they have published in VoX they explain how they created a new indicator of enforcement that combines both inspections and penalties.

Their results are interesting in at least two respects

  1. First, once they control for their measure of enforcement in a statistical analysis of the determinant of labour market performance, EPL no longer has a statistically significant adverse effect for most measures of performance. In other words, labour market regulations do not in fact seem to have a consistent effect on labour market outcomes.
  2. Second, they show that countries with more stringent EPL have lower enforcement levels, which then makes it difficult to know which country’s labour market really is more ‘rigid’. This is shown in the figure below that plots a de jure employment index on the horizontal axis and their enforcement index on the vertical axis.

Interpreting the figure: some country examples

The ranking should be interpreted as follows: countries which are lower on the scale have higher ranking and hence more protective institutions or more enforcement. Thus for instance, while Canada and Denmark have among the lowest ranking in de jure employment protection (they are not in the top 150 countries), they rank really high in terms of enforcement (in top 25). By contrast, France and Spain score high on EPL but do not rank well in terms of enforcement: their stringent regulations are not well-enforced compared to many other countries.

Figure: Enforcement and labour law


The Impact of the Elderly on Inflation Rates in Developed Countries

My latest working paper on the relationship between ageing and inflation has just come out as an LSE working paper. You can access it here.

And here is the abstract:

What explains the cross-national variation in inflation rates in developed countries? Previous literature has emphasised the role of ideas and institutions, and to a lesser extent interest groups, while leaving the role of electoral politics comparatively unexplored. This paper seeks to redress this neglect by focusing on one case where electoral politics matters for inflation: the share of the population above 65 years old in a country. I argue that countries with a larger share of elderly have lower inflation because older people are both more inflation averse and politically powerful, forcing governments to pursue lower inflation. I test my argument in three steps. First, logistic regression analysis of survey data confirms older people are more inflation averse. Second, panel data regression analysis of party manifesto data reveals that European countries with more old people have more economically orthodox political parties. Third, time series cross-section regression analyses demonstrate that the share of the elderly is negatively correlated with inflation in both a sample of 21 advanced OECD economies and a larger sample of 175 countries. Ageing may therefore push governments to adopt a low inflation regime.

Evolution of GDP per capita in USSR versus over developed countries

Every now and then I will get in a debate with colleagues and others about economic performance in USSR versus other developed ‘liberal’ economies. From my development economics training, I am well aware that the USSR was not a particularly sustainable nor desirable development model, but also that on GDP alone it performed pretty well. This latter point has been challenged in discussions so many times that I started to doubt it myself, so I thought I would check it again and post it so as to direct people to this post in the future!

Now I’m not an apologist for Soviet communism as a political nor economic system, but I’m often puzzled to find such a systematic reluctance among a wide variety of people to acknowledge that on GDP figures alone (and there are many shortcomings to these figures – which may or may not make them useful to compare economic performance across very different systems in long time periods) the USSR did perform fairly well, especially when compared to Western European countries.

Comparative economic performance over time is not among my main research interests (and hence I make no claims to particular expertise on this issue) but a cursory look at GDP per capita (in 1990 dollars – from Maddison’s database) from 1920 (ie a couple of years after the end of WWI) to 1988 (a few years before the USSR dissolved), reveals the USSR’s GDP per capita was multiplied by 12 compared to 4 in the USA, 5.2 in France, 5.78 in Germany, about the  same in Sweden, and Central and North Italy by 7.19 (see the table below).

One can (perhaps even should) argue that the soviet system was cruel, inefficient in many respects, unjust, etc, and it might that by cherry picking other time periods the results are different, but over the whole – relevant in my opinion – time period the USSR’s GDP per capita prima facie has increased much more than in its capitalist competitors. Of course this is the rate of growht in GDP per capita, but in terms of levels the USSR was still massively behind the US. But the difference between the USSR and US in terms of GDP per capita was about 1 to 10 in 1920 and had fallen to less than 1 to 4 in 1988.

Selected years and countries from the Maddison-Project,, 2013 version.

GDP per capita (1990 Int. GK$)
Country 1920 1988 1988/1920
Austria 2,412 15,754 6.53
Belgium 3,962 16,252 4.10
Denmark 3,992 18,224 4.57
France 3,227 16,790 5.20
Germany 2,796 16,160 5.78
(Centre-   North) Italy 2,153 15,485 7.19
Holland/     Netherlands 4,220 16,044 3.80
Norway 2,739 18,059 6.59
Sweden 3,004 17,232 5.74
Switzerland 6,568 20,243 3.08
England/GB/UK 4,548 16,110 3.54
12 W. Europe 3,333 16,307 4.89
USA 5,552 22,499 4.05
F. USSR 575 7,043 12.25

Addendum 1

Of course in terms of basic growth theory, this faster growth rate of the USSR makes sense: with higher returns to capital and a lower capital base, the USSR was able to grow by building its capital base much faster and drawing on reserve labour (ie extensive growth). In some ways, communist was more efficient at containing consumption than capitalist systems and hence at mobilising the resources for investment. But as it caught up and had to rely on innovations and technological progress (intensive growth), growth started slowing down in the USSR as its economic system was not conducive to innovation.

P.s. Janos Kornai has written extensively on this topic.

Addendum 2

If one focuses purely on the post-WW2 experience, the picture is more mixed with the USSR performing less well than Austria, Germany, north Italy and Norway but about the same as Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, and better than the US and the UK. I suspect this difference is partly the result of Addendum 1 and partly the different experience with the recession of the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Country 1946 1988 1988/1946
Austria 1,956 15,754 8.05
Belgium 4,574 16,252 3.55
Denmark 5,777 18,224 3.15
France 3,855 16,790 4.36
Germany 2,217 16,160 7.29
(Centre-     North) Italy 2,162 15,485 7.16
Holland/Netherlands 4,457 16,044 3.60
Norway 4,335 18,059 4.17
Sweden 5,646 17,232 3.05
Switzerland 8,997 20,243 2.25
England/GB/UK 6,745 16,110 2.39
12 W. Europe 3,925 16,307 4.15
USA 9,197 22,499 2.45
F. USSR 1,913 7,043 3.68

Austerity brings extremism: why the welfare state is the key to understanding the rise of Europe’s far right

This post was originally published in the Huffington post.

The recent Greek election has resulted, once again, in a coalition government between the far left Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) and the far right Independent Greeks (ANEL). What has attracted less media attention so far, however, is the striking result for the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn which increased its share of the vote from 6.28 to 6.99%, gaining 18 seats in a parliament of 300, and remaining third strongest party. This indicates that the Golden Dawn remains a considerable presence in Greek politics since its first entry in the Greek parliament in 2012. And, it is a striking result for a party that is not only extreme, violent, and espouses Nazi ideology, but is also currently on trial for maintaining a criminal organization. Only a couple of days prior to the election, the party’s leader publicly accepted “political responsibility” for the murder of left-wing activist Pavlos Fyssas.

But the rise and resilience of far right parties is not confined to Greece. While neo-Nazism is indeed a more isolated phenomenon, the far right more broadly- i.e. parties that centre their attention on nationalism and xenophobia – is becoming increasingly popular across Europe. In the 2014 European Parliament elections, four far right parties received more than 20% of the votes cast: Austria’s FPÖ, Denmark’s DF, Britain’s UKIP and the French FN. Several others received over 10% of the votes cast including the Dutch PVV, the True Finns, and Hungary’s Jobbik. A number of these parties are also faring quite well in their domestic electoral arenas, for instance the French FN in 2012, the Austrian FPÖ in 2013, and the DF in Denmark as well as UKIP in the UK in 2015.

The most popular explanation for the rise of the far right in Europe is the on-going economic crisis. This answer has both historical and theoretical appeal. Historically, the rise of Nazism in interwar Europe followed the 1929 major financial crash. Theoretically, economic crises are associated with the rise of the far right because the dispossessed are more likely to punish the mainstream and opt for extreme or anti-establishment parties.

But the crisis is, at best, only part of the story. Unemployment rates do not correlate with levels of far right support. While Greece, which does have high levels of unemployment and suffered greatly from the crisis, did experience the rise of the Golden Dawn, other countries that have suffered from the crisis including Spain, Portugal and Ireland have not experienced a similar rise: Spain 2000 and National Democracy (DN) have remained marginal in Spain, the same is the case for the Portuguese National Renovator Party (PNR), and there is no far right party in Ireland. On the other hand, countries that have not experienced the worst of the crisis and generally have lower levels of unemployment, such as Britain, France, and Denmark, are experiencing a rise in far right party support.

The problem with this explanation is therefore that it is not consistent with patterns of far right party performance across Europe. This is because it is missing a crucial piece of the puzzle: welfare state policies mitigating the risks and costs that an economic crisis imposes on individuals. Ironically, it seems that welfare cuts, employed to tackle Europe’s economic crisis, are to blame for a broader political crisis, where the far right is flourishing.

In other words, austerity breeds right-wing extremism and this why: The link between an economic crisis and far right support is the labour market insecurity experienced by the middle class. When a crisis hits, those who have a job fear that they will lose it. Those who don’t have a job (or those who do lose it) fear that they will have no safety net or alternative means of subsistence. The greater the risks and costs of unemployment arising from the crisis the greater the insecurity. And in turn, the greater the insecurity, the greater the likelihood for people to punish the mainstream and reward far right parties.

One reason is that these parties pledge to limit foreigners’ access to jobs, thus appearing to be responding to increasing insecurity. Another is that these parties’ authoritarian vision of order is appealing in a context where economic malaise is having a disorderly effect on people’s lives. Finally, far right populist rhetoric is appealing because mainstream parties take the bulk of the blame both for the crisis itself and for inadequate policy responses to it.

The welfare state, therefore, is the key to understanding the rise of the far right as well as its varied performance across Europe: The extent of insecurity that people experience as a result of the crisis is largely determined by how protective welfare state institutions are. People fear losing their jobs less when job dismissal regulations protect them from redundancy. And those who do lose their jobs suffer less from this loss when unemployment benefits are more generous. A rise in unemployment, therefore, is morel likely to lead to far right party support when job dismissal regulations are low and unemployment benefits not generous.

This helps explain what happened in Spain and Portugal where unemployment has increased but the far right has not emerged. Both countries have high unemployment benefit replacement rates, and job dismissal regulations for those in permanent contracts are also comparatively high. By contrast, Greece and the UK, which have seen their far right party support increase, have much lower replacement rates. The UK also has one of the lowest employment protection legislations in Western Europe.

Welfare state policies are the link between economic crisis, unemployment and far right party support. Welfare cuts have increased the insecurity of the European middle classes that are being hit by the economic crisis. This matters because of the implications it has for policy. By reversing austerity, which results in welfare cuts and increases insecurity, we can limit the appeal of right-wing extremism.

This piece is co-authored with Daphne Halikiopoulou. Daphne Halikiopoulou is Associate Professor in Comparative Politics at University of Reading. Tim Vlandas is Lecturer of Politics at University of Reading.  This piece builds on their argument in their co-authored piece Risks, Costs and Labour Markets: Explaining Far Right-Wing Party Success in European Parliament Elections forthcoming in the Journal of Common Market Studies.

Changing welfare states in the post-crisis period

The OECD has published their latest social expenditure update covering 2014. It’s a very interesting small report well worth reading. Here are 8 points that caught my eye in the latest data which I organise in three themes: surprising changes in ranking, the articulation of short term and long term dynamics and the importance of paying attention to the allocation and composition of social spending, not just the aggregate spending.

Surprising changes in ranking (Figure 1)

  1. Scandinavian countries are no longer always the top social spenders. In 2014, France (1st) spent more than Finland (2nd), Belgium (3rd) more than Denmark (4th), Italy (5th) and Austria (6th) more than Sweden (7th). For a very long time, Scandinavia had much large welfare states than other countries, which was attributed to particularly strong left wing parties and unions, as well as production models that required such a welfare state. This seems to be changing (though see point 5 below).
  1. Spain (8th) and Italy (5th) now spend more on social expenditures than Germany (8th), while Portugal (9th) spends more than the Netherlands (10th). But they do so in a way which is particularly inegalitarian (see point 6 below) and inefficient (consistent with older research by, among others, Andre Sapir).

Diversity in short term changes, but in the long run social spending increases

  1. The biggest absolute increase in social spending since 2007 can be seen in Finland, Spain, Belgium, Japan and Ireland. Nine countries have managed to reduce spending below their post-2007 peak: Sweden, Greece, Hungary, UK, Ireland, Canada, Iceland, Estonia and Chile (Figure 1).
  1. Every decade since the 1960s has seen an increase in the OECD’s average public social expenditures. This average hides an important difference between the US and the EU which start diverging in the mid-1970s. By 2012, the OECD average spending has stabilised around 22%, EU21 around 25%, US under 20%, while Japan spends more than the OECD average for the first time (Figure 2).

It’s not what you spend, it’s how you spend it

  1. But Scandinavia does continue to spend much more on all social services (excluding health), whereas pension commitments are much larger in continental European countries than Scandinavia (Figure 4). And indeed the challenge for most welfare states is going to be to foster efficiency and equality in a context where health and pensions are absorbing an ever rising amount of resources.
  1. What characterises southern Europe is not high social spending, it’s a high percentage of spending targeted at the better off (highest income quintile) and very little targeted at the poor (the bottom quintile). Scandinavia and liberal countries do well in terms of targeting spending toward bottom quintile (Figure 5).
  1. Liberal countries (Australia, Canada, US, UK, New Zealand) are the biggest ‘means testers’: They have among the highest share of cash benefits with eligibility and entitlements requirements that are conditional on the recipient’s current income and assets (Figure 6). While it means they do not fare badly in terms of targeting spending to the bottom quintile (point 6), reducing universality of benefits undermines public support for generous benefits, hence the low social spending figures. Countries must strike a balance between allocating sufficient amounts to the bottom quintile to promote effectiveness of spending in reducing poverty and inequality, and distributing parts of spending to other income quintiles to ensure legitimacy.
  1. We should not confuse what countries spend overall and the public-private distribution of that social spending. So far I’ve only discussed gross public spending: when looking at net social spending (i.e. including private social spending and the effect of tax), the US comes out second (from 23rd) after France! UK jumps from 15th to 5th, Japan from 14th to 7th and Netherlands from 13th to 6th. Others fall in ranking: Sweden from 7th to 11th, Italy from 6th to 8th, and Spain from 8th to 10th position (2011 figures, Figure 7). The combined drive by governments such as the UK to reduce public social spending and privatise parts of the provision may mean they end up in the worst of both worlds: spending as much as before, but with a higher share going through an often less efficient (for the case of health care) and less egalitarian provider.

UK Election: What’s in it for the welfare state?

In this short post I would like to discuss what I see as the key issues for welfare and to briefly compare them to parts of the labour, conservative, liberal democrats, greens and UKIP manifestos. Though one could no doubt identify other issues, to keep this text short I have decided to focus on two big issues the manifestos should address if the welfare state is to remain fit for the 21st century.

Ageing: Parties lack an overall long term strategy

The first issue concerns the ability of the welfare state to cope with ageing societies. This is something we all know about but it’s worth mentioning a few numbers. There are currently about 10 million people that are over 65 years old.  And – if we believe the current projections – this number will increase to nearly 20 million by 2050 (8 million will be more than 80 years old). This will put pressure on at least two policy domains.

The most obvious is pensions. Indeed, well over half the benefit expenditure by the Department for Work and Pensions goes to those over the working age. I think the UK is comparatively well placed to tackle this challenge but one worry is to ensure that the elderly are properly covered by future pensions. Most – though not all – pension spending is now means-tested and not particularly generous so it’s important that pensions are protected. The Greens probably have the most generous and most costly proposition (and I should note in passing this is the case for most policies!). The so-called triple lock – which protects the value of state pensions – is adhered to by the Liberals and Labour, while the Conservatives have said they will not freeze benefits for the old. This protected status is not surprising given that pensions remain the public’s favourite area for additional welfare spending (though there has been a recent drop in support).

The second policy domain where ageing puts pressure is Health. As an example, in 2007/08 the average value of NHS services for retired households was £5,200 compared with £2,800 for non-retired people. Health is already underfunded and a well quoted report estimates the shortfall to rise by 2020 to 30 billion in the absence of efficiency savings! Recent surveys also suggest 92% of the population thinks there’s a funding crisis. The Lib Dems promise an extra £8 billion a year into the NHS by 2020, and so do more or less the Conservatives, while Labour promises £2.5 billion more than the Conservatives.

What’s lacking from all manifestos is a long term vision to address the ageing issue. For instance, except for the Greens, no one proposes sufficient funding for social care. Ring fencing or increasing pension and health care will also make it hard to balance the books[1] let alone address the next set big issue I will mention now.

New social risks in the labour market

This second big issue concerns the ability of the welfare state to tackle labour market risks, and in particular (in-work) poverty, unstable contracts and reconciling work and family. While pensioner poverty has been falling, the absolute (but not relative) poverty of children has increased in the last couple of years. In 2013, 8% of people in employment, aged 18 to 64, were identified as being in poverty (approximately 3 million people). The evidence suggest that both increasing hours and increasing hourly earnings are crucial to unable people to exit in work poverty.

With respect to the most extreme form of unstable work, ONS figures suggest that at the end of 2014 there were 1.8 million people with non-guaranteed hours, including Zero Hours Contracts (ZHC). Most parties promise some form of actions on ZHC: Liberals want to ‘stamp out abuse’; Conservatives want to eradicate ‘exclusivity’ in ZHC; UKIP will prevent the NHS from hiring ZHCs; Labour says it will (missing verb here) abolish ‘exploitative’ zero hours contracts, and those who work regular hours for more than 12 weeks will have a right to a regular contract; Greens want to abolish it entirely.

With respect to wages most manifestos want to give some boost to wages. This is clearest in the case of minimum wages: the Greens suggest £10 an hour by 2020; Labour wants to increase it to more than £8 an hour by October 2019. They also want to incentivise employers to pay a living wage using tax rebates; Conservatives are more ambiguous, I quote: “they accept the recommendations of the Low Pay Commission that the National Minimum Wage should rise to £6.70 this autumn, on course for a Minimum Wage that will be over £8 by the end of the decade”; UKIP wants to end income tax on minimum wage; Lib Dems limit their demands to better enforcement and I quote “asking the Low Pay Commission to look at ways of raising the National Minimum Wage, without damaging employment opportunities”.

But addressing new social risks and precarious work also requires better childcare provisions which are particularly unsatisfactory in the UK. With respect to childcare, the main parties are getting to grip with this but there’s too little too late, and funding is a question mark. Surprisingly, out of the three main parties, Labour has the least generous policy proposal. It wants to provide 25 hours of free childcare per week to all 3 and 4 year-olds with working parents (costing £500 million). Conservatives are slightly more generous and propose to give working parents of 3 and 4-year-olds 30 hours of free childcare a week. IFS suggests that the funding for the policy is more plausible for labour than for the conservative. The Lib Dems have, in their words, the most ‘ambitious aspiration’ to provide free childcare to all parents with children aged two to four, and all working parents with children aged from nine months to two years. They estimate that this could cost around £2 billion: it’s not clear where the money would come from, so cuts to ‘unprotected’ departmental spending would be required.

We also need a better policy to tackle unemployment without increasing poverty, which in 2013 was around 30% for those aged 18 to 64 and not working. As far as I can tell, no parties propose significant increases in the generosity of benefits for the unemployed, not surprisingly given the increasingly negative public attitudes towards these benefits, including among labour supporters. Conservatives go in opposite direction with two-year freeze on rates of various working age benefits, lowering the household benefits cap, and some changes to benefit entitlements for 18–21 year olds. The Lib Dems also want to retain overall cap on households’ benefits and believe this should continue to be set at around the average family income. We also have more workfare in both Labour and Conservative manifestos, particularly for the young, with the conditioning benefits on acceptance of jobs.

Overall, impact of ageing should in short term be manageable but we lack a long term vision. In a context where parties feel rightly or wrongly that they have to contain costs and given how expensive pensions and health care, this limits our capacity to tackle new social risks. This is partly because of the much greater electoral support for pensions and health care than benefits, and hence a normal electoral mechanism. But this victory of ‘politics over economics’ will undermine our long term potential and limit our ability to tackle inequality and poverty.


[1] Achieving budget balance while protecting pensions and healthcare suggest further drastic cuts in other policy domains that have already been hit hard. Indeed, spending outside of the NHS, education and aid has already been cut by 18.1% between 2010–11 and 2014–15.

An appeal to the Labour Party to stop the anti-immigration rhetoric: Restricting migrants’ benefits makes no sense and they should know better

It is disappointing to see that the Labour party has given in to the anti-immigration game by pandering to the – presumed – anti-immigrants feelings of parts of the population. At the special election question time, Labour decided to reiterate its proposal to limit immigrants’ eligibility to benefits in the first two years they reside in the country.

This is not so much an affront to the party’s founding principles as it is an affront to reason. It misrepresents the problem the country faces, it will do little to reduce immigration, and is at odds with the aim to protect all workers.

Immigration is not a problem

Limiting immigrants’ access is wrong because it validates the misplaced idea that immigrants are to blame for the problems the country faces. It’s obvious to everyone that Labour is ‘piggy backing’ on UKIP’s and conservatives’ manifestos in an attempt to capture some of their voters. But Labour cannot outcompete UKIP and conservatives who will always be more able to use, and benefit from, an anti-immigrant rhetoric that labour can be.

This cheap electoral ploy would not be so disheartening if it was anchored in some underlying reality. It is not. As a result the proposal makes no sense.

Immigrants of course did not cause the financial crisis. They did not create the subsequent debt and economic crises either. On the contrary, their contribution to the fiscal position of the UK has been shown to be positive. Immigrants’ younger age profile means they are less likely to rely on the health care system but contribute more. This mitigates the problem arising from ageing. They are more likely to be in work and less likely to claim benefits so that on the net the welfare system’s position is improved by immigration.

The number of immigrants coming into the country is also thrown around carelessly, often comparing what net immigration was like in some semi distant past with what it has been in the recent past. But the reality is that the UK population growth rate is not particularly high, so that there might be a distributional issue around where that population is located in the country but not an aggregate issue of the total number of people living the country. The population density of London is more than 10 times that of the country, whereas average national population density increased by roughly 10% between 1981 and 2009.

Immigrants might be putting – perceived or real – pressures in communities receiving large influx of immigration, but what is the nature of the problem? Most often it is about pressures on public services and housing, not hordes of immigrants claiming benefits. This is a problem about the distribution of the population across the country and this problem is not caused by immigration. And given that immigrants improve the viability of the state, they make the problem easier to solve.

Why it won’t fix the actual problems

Assuming immigration is a problem, is this proposed policy likely to solve it? No. And again elementary logic suffices to reach this conclusion. Reducing benefits cannot substantially reduce immigration if most immigrants come to work, which they do. The amazing thing is that this is acknowledged by the very parties that want to restrict benefits.

The ridiculous discussion about the ‘freedom to claim benefits’ is not about benefits at all, it is about creating a minimum floor for workers, whether native or immigrant, to survive while they look for a job. This is something the Labour Party should understand. Such a floor is conducive to the bargaining power of all workers, both natives and immigrants. If restricting benefits to immigrants won’t stop immigration, what it will do is force them to accept almost any job. To the extent that employers use immigrants to undercut labour standards, restricting benefits will accentuate this problem and is therefore contradictory with the proposal to fight such abuses.

The notion that one can comfortably live off job seekers’ allowance while doing nothing to search for a job is a myth. If you believe it, just look at the requirements imposed on benefit recipients and the sanctions that are imposed for not looking sufficiently actively for jobs or not attending an interview, or losing a job that you were given. Unemployment benefits are not generous, certainly compared to many other European countries.

The solution should therefore not be to restrict benefits to immigrants but to use the extra fiscal revenues that they generate to alleviate pressure on certain public services and to rebalance the UK economy regionally away from the south east and sectorally away from financial services.

Note: All the numbers are taken from a related post I’ve written on this topic.

Why Cameron is wrong on migrants’ benefits

The Prime Minister is at it again. Saddened by the rise of immigration above ‘the tens of thousands’ promised, David Cameron proposed new curbs on EU immigrants’ access to UK benefits in a recent speech. This proposal is unlikely to be feasible given current EU legislation. Because it is based on a flawed assessment of the problem, this proposal is also unlikely to have any effect on EU immigration and will probably make things worse.

What’s the problem?

According to the Office for national statistics, net migration – the difference between those leaving (323,000) and those entering (583,000) the country – was 260,000. One often throws this number around in the hope that it will sound big. However, common sense suggests otherwise. Indeed, this represents 0.36% of the total population of the UK (64 million). Yes, 0.36% and you are meant to believe this is a major problem facing the country today. Indeed Cameron criticises the “complacent view that says the levels of immigration we’ve seen in the past decade aren’t really a problem at all”.

But the truly amazing thing is that not even half of those entering the UK are EU citizens: of the 583,000 entering the country, only 228,000 came from other EU countries in the year ending June 2014. And about 20% of EU immigrants came to study. Compare this with the latest number of births (812,970) and deaths (569,024) in the UK. Or think about the fact that we still have 1.96 million people seeking work (only 0.93 million receiving job seeker’s allowance) and 9 million not in the labour force (i.e. those between 16 and 64 either not seeking or not available to work).

The proposed solution

Despite no evidence that the bulk of immigration is driven by benefits, Cameron proposes two measures that are entirely based on this assumption:

  • He first suggestsEU migrants should have a job offer before they come here” but then contends that “UK taxpayers will not support them if they don’t”, which begs the question: how could UK taxpayers support them if they are not allowed to come here in the first place without having a job offer? Never mind that people also pay taxes when they consume goods and services.
  • Second, he proposed introducing a two-tier system where “once they are in work, they [EU citizens] won’t get benefits or social housing from Britain unless they have been here for at least four years.” It’s totally unclear of course how this is supposed to influence EU immigration into the country. It’s also grossly unfair since it will – arbitrarily – prevent people who are contributing to government revenues to claim certain benefits.

Why it doesn’t make sense

The first issue with the proposed reform is a misreading of what’s driving EU immigrants’ to come to the UK. Cameron argues that the “generous welfare system, including for those in work – makes the UK a magnetic destination for workers from other European countries”. But many of the benefits are in fact not more generous than in many other EU countries. And migrants are less likely to claim benefits than natives.

In fact, immigrants that are from Central and Eastern European countries are 60% less likely than natives to receive state benefits or tax credits and 58% less likely to live in social housing. In 2011, across all benefits given by Department of Work and Pensions, 6.4% were non-UK nationals and only a quarter of those were from within the European Union. Ironically, Cameron himself concedes as much: “And let me be clear: the great majority of those who come here from Europe come to work, work hard and pay their taxes.” If the majority of immigrants come to work – and they do – restricting benefits would at best alter the immigration decisions of very few people.

Second, the reform is unnecessary. Indeed, as Cameron himself argues the surge in EU immigration is temporary and driven by the economic downturn in other EU countries: “And once economic growth returns to the countries of the Eurozone, and those economies start to grow and prosper, the economic pendulum will start to swing back.” If the problem is a temporary downturn in other EU economies, a permanent curb on EU immigrants’ benefits is unlikely to solve it.

Third, the reform would make matters worse. Cameron boasts that “So as Universal Credit is introduced we will pass a new law that means EU jobseekers will not be able to claim it. […] So instead of £600, they will get nothing.” But if the concern over immigration, as is frequently voiced, is that it puts pressure on the employment conditions and wages of workers in certain occupations, then making EU immigrants non-eligible to benefits will increase rather than decrease the pressure that takes place.

Indeed, faced with literally no safety net, EU immigrants would be forced to accept any work at any wages. Current evidence in any case suggests that immigration has at worst a mixed impact on native workers – beneficial for some workers and detrimental to others. Immigration also entails a clearly beneficial effect on the net fiscal position of the government. Thus, if successful in preventing immigration the reform would paradoxically lead to a worsening of public finances.

Last but not least, to the extent that a high and localised influx of immigrants does indeed put pressure on public services, reducing the overall number of those who come in the foreseeable future, while deteriorating EU immigrants’ social protection, does nothing to alleviate the pressure that has already accumulated. Pressure on public services is an allocation problem: immigration and indeed the general population concentrate in certain parts of the UK territory.

The solution is therefore twofold. First, making other parts of the UK more economically attractive would distribute population more evenly across the UK.The UK does not have an usustainable population growth: it had the 152nd highest rate of population growth of the world. Its net migration rate per 1,000 persons is lower than in Ireland, Cyprus, Norway, Spain, Australia, Canada, Sweden,Switzerland, Italy, and Portugal. The UK population density – people per square Km – did increase from 230 in 1981 to 255 in 2009 (table 6). But compare this to density in London: 4,932 people per square kilometre in 2009 (page 20).

Second, we should invest in the public services that are under pressure. To the extent that EU immigrants have a positive net fiscal effect, they should facilitate such an investment. Some may argue that it is EU immigration that puts pressure on these services. However, given net economic gains of immigration the solution should not be to reduce immigration but rather to use the extra tax revenues that EU workers generate to invest in pressurised locations.

An EU version of this solution could also be pushed by this government: to create an ‘EU immigration compensation fund’ that helps local communities cope with the pressures that large influx of immigrants may generate. In a context where the EU is associated with austerity, thereby fuelling extremism, this fund would improve public services where it is most needed while addressing EU citizens’ legitimate concerns over immigration.

Wealth extremism

The latest global wealth report by Credit Suisse has some shocking numbers on the latest level of wealth concentration

– 35 million people each have more than $1 million in wealth whereas 3.2 billlion people have less than $10,000

– If you do the sums, it means the former group is worth a combined $116 trillion whereas the latter group is worth $7.6 trillion

– In percentage terms, things look worst:  0.7% of the total population have about 44% of total wealth, whereas 70% have 2.9%

Who are the wealth millionaires?

– More than 40% are in the US

– Germany, UK, France, Japan, Italy have betwen 5% and 10%

Who are the worst performers in developed countries?

– In Hong Kong, US, and Switzerland the top decile owns more than 70% of the wealth

– In Austria, Germany, Denmark, Israel, Norway, Sweden, top decile owns more than 60% of wealth

– Top decile is worth less than 50% in Belgium and Japan

– The remaining developed countries exhibit top deciles owning between 50% and 60% of total wealth

Have all countries seen increases in wealth concentration in top decile in the last decade and a half?

– Rise: China, Egypt, Hong Kong, Turkey, Korea, Argentina, India, Russia, Taiwan, Indonesia, Israel, Czech Republic, Brazil, UK, Spain, Chile

– Little change: Greece, Austria, Thailand, Portugal, Ireland, Peru, Australia, US, Belgium, Netherlands, South Africa, Finland, Italy, Sweden, Norway

– Fall: Switzerland, Denmark, Germany, Japan, Philippines, France, Columbia, Canada, Mexico, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Poland

Will this gets worst? The report predicts that by 2019

– The middle class will grow (percentage of population with between $10,000 and $100,000 will increase from 21 to 25%)

– Number of millionaire will reach 53 million compared to 35 million right now