The problem is high implicit marginal tax rates on many people who are eligible for benefits from means-tested government programs. I think that a generic solution might consist of flexible benefits.
One approach would be to replace all forms of means-tested assistance, including food stamps, housing subsidies, Medicaid, and the EITC, with a single cash benefit. For this purpose, we might also think of unemployment insurance as a means-tested benefit.
The classic approach is the negative income tax. What I would suggest is a modification of the negative income tax, in which recipients are instead given flexdollars. These would be like vouchers or food stamps, in that they can be used only for “merit goods:” food, health care/insurance, housing, and education/training. One way to think of this is that it takes the food stamp concept and broadens it to include the other merit goods.
Flexdollars would start at a high level for households with no income and then fade out at rate of 20 percent of the recipient’s adjusted gross income. This “fade-out” would act as a marginal tax rate on income, so we should be careful not to set the fade-out rate too high.
Suppose that a household receives $7500 in flexdollars per member. Thus, a family of four with zero income would receive $30,000 in flexdollars. A family of four with $20,000 in income would lose 20 percent of $20,000, or $4,000, to fade-out, and hence would receive only $26,000. A family of four with a $50,000 income would receive $20,000. A family of four with a $100,000 income would receive $10,000. A family of four with a $150,000 income would receive nothing.
At the end of the year, unused flexdollars could go into flexible savings accounts. Tghese could be used for medical emergencies, down payments when buying a home, or to save for retirement.
There are two ways in which this represents an improvement over the current approach. First, it ensures that implicit marginal tax rates are low for benefit recipients. As it is now, people with low incomes easily can find that if they work they lose more in benefits than they obtain in pay. I think that is very corrosive, and I would put a high priority on restoring the incentive for people to work, while still giving them the means to meet basic needs.
The second benefit is that it gives recipients more flexibility and choice. Just as food-stamp recipients can decide for themselves what groceries to buy, flexdollar users can decide for themselves how much to allocate to housing vs. food vs. training.
One problem with a negative income tax or with flexdollars is that some families are needier than others, particularly with respect to medical issues. Someone with a lot of ailments and little in the way of resources will not have enough flexdollars to pay medical bills (remember that there is no longer Medicaid in this approach).
The solution I would propose would be to have taxpayers provide extreme catastrophic health insurance that kicks in if a household’s medical expenses exceed $30,000 in a year. For every additional dollar of medical expenses over $20,000, the government would pay 90 percent. For example, a household requiring $100,000 would receive $72,000. Of course, households would be permitted to obtain private insurance to cover lower levels of spending and/or to cover the remaining 10 percent of higher levels of spending. Overall, this idea bears some resemblance to the idea of “catastrophic reinsurance” that was floated about ten years ago.
I am thinking that we would eliminate Federal support for unemployment compensation. Instead, perhaps a private-sector form of unemployment insurance might emerge, and households would be able to buy this using flexdollars. If it turns out that nobody wants to spend their flexdollars on unemployment insurance, then that might be a sign that unemployment insurance is not such a great thing.
It might be best to phase in implementation. The first phase might be to fold in the EITC, food stamps, housing vouchers, and health insurance subsidies. Those are all programs that already take the form of cash or vouchers given to households. A later phase would be to replace Medicaid and unemployment insurance with flexdollars given to households. (Of course, if states want to continue to continue Medicaid or to provide unemployment compensation, without any Federal dollars to support the, they are welcome to do so. I doubt that would happen.) Another phase would be to wind down all forms of housing assistance, mortgage subsidies, Federal aid to education, training programs, Pell grants, and student loan programs, and replace these with flexdollars.
One challenge with implementation is in deciding which goods and services are eligible for flexdollars. Just as the food stamp program has to decide which groceries are eligible, the flexdollar program has to decide what counts as eligible medical services, housing services, and education services. Yes, that opens up the floodgates for lots of rent-seeking. If that gets really out of control, then it would be better to give people a straight cash benefit.
This is just a concept I am toying with. Criticism welcome.
Note that I once wrote an essay that I called The FlexDollar Welfare State that was not about an idea of this character. Instead, the essay criticized the George W. Bush Administration’s domestic policy initiatives. Actually, the best thing about the essay is the discussion of the oxymoron of “company benefits.”
What is interesting is that workers are not naturally suspicious of companies that pay “good benefits.” Apparently, most people believe that “good benefits” reflect generosity and sharing by the company, rather than a shrewd, calculated effort to save on compensation costs. My guess is that the people who see through the scam of “good benefits” tend to gravitate toward self-employment, which allows them to take their payments in cash and buy benefits themselves.