J-1 Summer Work Travel Program Still Poorly Regulated

  • Daniel Costa
  • Daniel Costa

I’d like to attract your attention to this report from WJHG, a local news affiliate in Panama City, Florida. It’s a stark reminder of everything that’s wrong with the State Department’s large de facto guestworker program, the Summer Work Travel (SWT) program. For those not familiar with SWT, it is one of many “cultural exchange” programs in State’s J-1 visa Exchange Visitor Program; each year it allows around a hundred thousand foreign college students from around the world to come to the United States to work for four months in hotels, beach resorts, restaurants, and various other mostly seasonal businesses, in a variety of lesser-skill jobs.

In Guestworker Diplomacy and numerous commentaries, I’ve explained in detail how this temporary foreign worker program disguised as an exchange program was designed and is administered by an agency with zero expertise in regulating, monitoring, or enforcing labor- and employment-law related issues and is thus entirely unqualified to manage the program. This in turn results in a dysfunctional program where severe abuses and exploitation of vulnerable foreign student workers, and even human trafficking, takes place. The Southern Poverty Law Center has a new report, Culture Shock: The Exploitation of J-1 Cultural Exchange Workers, which provides numerous real-world examples of such abuse, exploitation, and criminal activity. But the perspective we get in the WJHG report from Scott Springer, the U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement/Homeland Security Investigations Resident Agent in Charge in Panama City, Florida, shows just how deep the problems are.

Agent Springer took the initiative to reach out to local J-1 “sponsors”—the private organizations to which the State Department has outsourced management and oversight of the Exchange Visitor Program—and offered to conduct information sessions along with local law enforcement and victims’ advocacy groups. His intention was to better inform J-1 student workers about what can go wrong in the program and how they can protect themselves. Agent Springer should be applauded for his candor and for working to protect the safety of vulnerable young student workers. Here’s what he’s observed that motivated him to offer his services:

J-1 Visa students are probably among our most exploited individuals on the beach. We kept seeing such a large number of problems here with the J-1 community, not with the students, but with the students being exploited by egregious employers.

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A Progressive Budget that is Decidedly Mainstream

By most economic measures, Washington’s preoccupation with shrinking deficits through budget austerity has failed to improve economic outcomes for anyone but the already well off. Most Americans would agree with this sentiment, unequivocally.

Strong majorities of Americans consider a flagging economy to be our top priority, and that the creation of an abundance of quality jobs is the most effective remedy to our economic malaise. And while Americans want government to reduce deficits, we reject the ideas that safety net programs like SNAP and unemployment insurance ought to be diminished, or that Social Security and Medicare benefits ought to be cut. Instead we endorse raising revenues through increases in taxes paid by high earners and profitable corporations.

These mainstream perspectives have a sound basis in economic research and are reflected in the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s Better Off Budget. While the media generally presents the progressive budget as a fringe alternative to the Ryan and Obama budgets, in actuality, the Better Off Budget is the only budget that reflects the mainstream priorities listed above.

It does so by aggressively spurring job creation to close the output gap, reach full employment, and set the stage for sustained broad based wage growth. EPI analyst Joshua Smith assessed the macroeconomic impact of the budget and determined that it would create 4.6 million jobs within one year of implementation.

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Current Maryland Minimum Wage Law and Proposed House Version of Reform Have Too Many Loopholes and Exemptions

A couple of my EPI colleagues have recently shown and testified twice that raising the state minimum wage to $10.10 would greatly benefit Maryland workers. In my opinion, it’s not nearly enough of a raise, but it’s what’s on the table, and there’s no doubt it would help hundreds of thousands of workers. In any case, the legislative saga to make it a reality continues. On March 3, the Maryland House of Delegates’ Economic Matters Committee approved a number of changes to legislation proposed by Governor O’Malley to raise the minimum wage to $10.10. The changes weaken the law and exempt certain employers and industries from having to pay the increased wage. Two days later the full House considered over a dozen amendments—most of which were seeking to expand the committee’s exemptions—but none passed. That version of the bill was then passed by the House on March 7. What you should know is that the bill could have been much better, but a number of delegates in a Democratic-controlled House managed to greatly water down the scope and impact of the bill, and the bill also did not remove a number of exemptions that exist in current law.

The worst change to the originally proposed House version of the minimum wage law was the committee’s deletion of the provision that would index the minimum wage to inflation after 2016. That provision would have ensured that the bottom of the wage scale kept pace with the cost of living over time. Gov. O’Malley expressed his disappointment with this and plans to do all he can to get it reinserted during the remaining stages of the legislative process. Another unfortunate modification is a six-month extension of the time it will take for the minimum wage to reach its peak of $10.10. Workers earning the minimum wage are hurting now and earning near or below the poverty line; they need a raise as soon as possible, not one that’s slowly phased in through 2017.

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U.S.-Korea Trade Deal Resulted in Growing Trade Deficits and Nearly 60,000 Lost Jobs

This Saturday is the second anniversary of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS), which took effect on March 15, 2012. President Obama said at the time that KORUS would increase US goods exports by $10 to $11 billion, supporting 70,000 American jobs from increased exports alone. Things are not turning out as predicted.

In first two years after KORUS took effect, U.S. domestic exports to Korea fell (decreased) by $3.1 billion, a decline of 7.5%, as shown in the figure below. Imports from Korea increased $5.6 billion, an increase of 9.8%. Although rising exports could, in theory, support more U.S. jobs, the decline in US exports to Korea has actually cost American jobs in the past two years. Worse yet, the rapid growth of Korean imports has eliminated even more U.S. jobs. Overall, the U.S. trade deficit with Korea has increased $8.7 billion, or 59.6%, costing nearly 60,000 U.S. jobs. Most of the nearly 60,000 jobs lost were in manufacturing.

Trade deals do more than cut tariffs, they promote foreign direct investment (FDI) and a surge in outsourcing by U.S. and foreign multinational companies (MNCs). FDI leads to growing trade deficits and job losses. U.S. multinationals were responsible for nearly one quarter (26.9 percent) of the U.S. trade deficit in 2011. Foreign multinationals operating in the United States (companies like Kia and Hyundai) were responsible for nearly half (44.2 percent) of the U.S. goods trade deficit in that same year. Taken together, U.S. and foreign MNCs were responsible for nearly three-fourths (77.1 percent) of the U.S. goods trade deficit in 2011.

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Still Not Ready for Prime Time: Tax Reform and Dynamic Scoring

Representative Dave Camp, the Republican Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, recently unveiled his long awaited comprehensive tax reform proposal. It is one of the very few serious congressional tax reform proposals in several years (Senators Wyden and Coates are probably the only others with a serious tax reform plan in recent years). Like any proposal of substance, there is much to like in Camp’s proposal and much to dislike. Much has been written on what is good and bad about it and more will undoubtedly follow. In this post, I’ll focus on the macroeconomic growth outcomes of the plan which are, after all, the whole point of what is supposed to make politically difficult “tax reform” worth it in the end. The bottom line is, estimates of the plan’s macroeconomic outcomes mostly tell us that dynamic scoring models are still not ready to be used as guides to policy.

The Camp plan reduces the statutory tax rate on corporations from 35 percent to 25 percent, reduces the statutory tax rate for most individuals (the top tax rate is reduced from 39.6 percent to 35 percent—a 12 percent reduction—but the rate reductions are far from simple to quantify), and eliminates many tax loopholes in order to reduce tax rates (all under the current Washington mantra of “lower rates and broaden the base”). The plan is revenue neutral over the next 10 years, but most likely increases deficits after that, because of various gimmicks that shift tax revenue inside the 10-year budget window. In addition to revenue neutrality, the plan aims to be distributionally neutral as well. (Non-economists may well wonder what the point of a revenue and distributionally neutral tax reform could possibly be. The answer suggested by many economists is the tax rate reductions made possible by tax reform will dramatically increase economic growth and employment.)

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A Glimmer of Sanity on Unemployment Insurance in the Senate—Hopefully It Won’t Be Snuffed out in the House

The Senate reached a deal yesterday on extending unemployment insurance benefits that expired at the end of 2013. It’s not perfect—it only lasts for six-months, the length of benefit eligibility remains too low, and a range of pretty silly “pay-fors” are included. These pay-fors are not earth-shakingly bad, but the idea that one needs to find offsets to pay for emergency unemployment benefits is truly bad policymaking. These benefits are supposed to be deficit-financed, because that’s what optimizes their “automatic stabilizer” properties.

But as far as DC policymaking goes, this is a deal I’d vote for in a second, obviously. Unemployment today stands at 6.7 percent. Before the Great Recession, we last saw unemployment this high in October 1993—and yes, the extended unemployment benefits program triggered by the 1990-1991 recession was still in effect in that month. And long-term unemployment (the reason extended benefits are relevant) remains at levels that dwarf anything we’ve seen pre Great Recession.

The arguments for extending these benefits are as clear a slam-dunk as exists in policymaking. Unemployment and long-term unemployment remain high. Extended benefits keep people actively searching for work instead of dropping out of the labor force entirely. And unemployment insurance is some of the most efficient economic stimulus there is. If we go all of 2014 without renewing benefits, the drag on the economy will likely cost us roughly 310,000 jobs over the year.

One question that often comes up is “what do people do when their benefits run out?” There is, of course, a myth that when UI benefits are exhausted, people simply stop enjoying their subsidized vacation and go find work. It’s not true (see this paper, among plenty of others that have looked at this effect). And the reason that it’s not true is simply because there remains a huge excess of unemployed workers relative to job openings. This ratio of job seekers to job openings has indeed improved a lot from the brutal levels reached during the height of labor market distress following the Great Recession, but it’s still a very ugly game of musical chairs for job seekers.

So what do people do when their UI benefits are exhausted? Some new research by Jesse Rothstein and Rob Valletta provides the depressing and completely predictable answer: they suffer. The probability of falling into poverty almost doubles following exhaustion of UI benefits.

It’s great that the Senates decided to do something useful for the American people yesterday. It’d be even better if the House followed their lead.

Nondefense Discretionary Spending and the CPC Budget

The Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) released their budget proposal yesterday. And, unlike other budget proposals, the CPC proposal recognizes and acts on the need for sustained investment in our future. As is well-known, unless Congress acts to change the Murray-Ryan budget, fiscal year 2015 overall spending levels are already set. But the policy debate over fiscal priorities has (rightly) continued. For example, President Obama released his proposed budget last week, in which he calls for $28 billion in increased nondefense discretionary spending over Murray-Ryan. It is worth taking a closer look at the various budget proposals and compare them to each other and with historical nondefense discretionary spending.

This blog post focuses on nondefense discretionary spending—the part of the budget containing much of our spending on infrastructure, education, and public research and development.* Increasing this spending is important due to years of underinvestment. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that over the next 10 years the gap between needed funding for infrastructure and what is planned to be spent is over $1.6 trillion (their overall grade on the state of current U.S. infrastructure is D+). The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that $200 billion is now needed for repairs, renovation, and modernization of public school facilities.

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Are We Really on a Rapid Glide-Path to Full Employment?

Evan Soltas asks some questions about how much slack remains in the economy, some directed at my recent deck on the issue (which has been edited—grabbed the wrong quarter as the trough for a couple of series—all that really changes is lower relative growth in business investment in the  current recovery).

Jared and Dean have largely answered his first question on quits, but since he re-poses it in his latest, here goes my answer, largely mirroring theirs—the quit-rate is actually about where it was in the middle of the recession. It’s headed generally up, but in the latest month’s data is back to where it was in September, so I can’t really look at this and think that slack is fading so fast we’ll run up against capacity constraints soon. As an aside, I’d just note that Evan occasionally implies that I’m arguing that there has been no reduction in slack since the recession. That’s not true—I don’t argue that anywhere.

Further, I’m not exactly sure what to make of his linear projection of unemployment combined with futures markets’ expectations of short-term rate hikes in coming years. He finds that combining the two imply short-term interest rates will still be very low even when unemployment is very low, and takes this as evidence that monetary policy is actually on a very (maybe even riskily?) accommodative path. But isn’t the more likely interpretation of these series simply that futures markets don’t believe his linear unemployment projection is likely to come to pass?

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Socioeconomic School Integration Is a Worthy Goal, but Racial Segregation Presents Added Challenges

Are African Americans disadvantaged—for example, having lower school achievement—because they have lower family incomes, on average, than whites, or because they continue to suffer from an American caste system based on race?

Both are involved. Certainly, in a color-blind society, African American students would have lower average achievement simply because a higher proportion of African American than white students have income and other socioeconomic disadvantages that depress their ability to take full advantage of schooling.

Therefore, policies that attempt to offset the disadvantages that impede the success of all lower class children, regardless of race or ethnicity, can benefit black children disproportionately. But we should not delude ourselves that by narrowing socioeconomic inequality, we have also significantly addressed racial subjugation, the continuing American dilemma.

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Raise the Pay of Hard-Working Americans with an Update of the Overtime Rules

For decades, Americans’ wages have been stagnant—hardly growing at all, even as the economy becomes increasingly productive. Do you ever wonder why your paycheck is so thin? One reason might be that employers routinely ask workers to work long hours without extra compensation. President Obama has decided to fix this problem and will direct the U.S. Department of Labor to update its overtime regulations, which allow employers to deny overtime pay to millions of white collar workers who ought to receive it.

The salary threshold is supposed to be set at a level high enough to guarantee that regular employees can’t be misclassified by their employers as exempt executives, administrators or professionals, as a way to get around having to pay time-and-a-half for overtime work. Back in the days when the level was regularly adjusted, it was set at about $50,000-$60,000 a year in today’s dollars, which is reasonable and was high enough to protect most secretaries from being classified as exempt administrators, for example, and research assistants from being classified as exempt professionals. Today, the threshold is set at $455 a week, or $23,660 a year—$190 less than the poverty threshold for a family of four. Quite frankly, it’s a joke.

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Currency Manipulation: The Real Story vs. House of Cards

The second installment of the Netflix original series, House of Cards, became available recently to the delight of binge watchers everywhere. In the backdrop of Frank Underwood’s (played by Kevin Spacey) uncompromising assent to power is a very relevant debate about trade policy with China. Specifically, one of the primary sources of tension between the two countries is the U.S.’ contention that China artificially keeps the value of their currency down to gain an advantage in trade. Defining currency manipulation is an ongoing debate, but Bergsten and Gagnon laid out their own criterion and found China to be one of the “most significant currency manipulators.” The effort to label China a currency manipulator falls by the wayside in Underwood’s duplicitous schemes to push his own personal agenda, but China’s currency manipulation has real effects on trade, and the United States can take real actions to reduce the trade deficit and create jobs. In fact, EPI’s Robert Scott just released a paper which found that ending currency manipulation across 20 of the most prominent practitioners (including the linchpin, China) would create between 2.3 million to 5.8 million jobs in the United States over the next three years.

So how is “currency manipulation” defined?  Bergsten and Gagnon categorize a country as a currency manipulator if it meets the following four criteria:

  • They held federal exchange (FX) reserves that exceed six months of goods and services imports.
  • They maintained a total (global) current-account surplus between 2001 and 2011.
  • Their total FX reserves grew faster than their GDP between 2001 and 2011.
  • They have gross national income in 2010 of at least $3,000 per capita, the median among 215 countries ranked by the World Bank (this criterion excludes low-incoming developing economies).

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Hillary Clinton Speaks Out For Young Workers

It is remarkable that until this week, no American politician has had the guts or vision to speak out against one of the most destructive trends in our troubled labor market—the scourge of illegal unpaid internships. But thank goodness for Hillary Clinton, who, as reported by Politico, “spoke passionately about millennials, blasting businesses that take advantage of unpaid interns.”

The Fair Labor Standards Act makes most unpaid internships in for-profit businesses illegal because the so-called internships are usually nothing more than employment, with no special educational purpose or structure and no pay. The U.S. Department of Labor has made clear that interns must be paid at least the minimum wage unless the business that hires them meets six criteria:

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

According to the National Journal, Clinton, who was addressing an audience at UCLA, “warned there is a “youth unemployment crisis” created by the weak economy they inherited, and stressed the need for more opportunities such as paid job training. She decried—to applause from the audience—businesses that have “taken advantage” of young people with unpaid internships.”

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Unemployment in February Remains Elevated Across the Board

The table below shows the current unemployment rate and the unemployment rate in 2007, along with the ratio of those two values, for various demographic and occupational categories. One thing that is immediately obvious from the table is that there is substantial variation in unemployment rates across groups. This is always the case—it was true in 2007, before the recession began, and it is true now. But the main point of the table is that the unemployment rate is between 1.4 and 1.7 times as high now as it was six years ago for all age, education, occupation, gender, and racial and ethnic groups. Today’s sustained high unemployment relative to 2007, across all major groups, underscores the fact that the jobs crisis stems from a broad-based lack of demand. In particular, unemployment is not high because workers lack adequate education or skills; rather, a lack of demand for goods and services makes it unnecessary for employers to significantly ramp up hiring.

Weak demand for workers has kept wage growth very sluggish. Average hourly wages for all private-sector workers grew by 2.2% over the last year, which is just slightly higher than the rate of inflation. The economic link between high unemployment and low wage growth is straightforward; employers do not need to pay sizable wage increases to get and keep the workers they need when job opportunities are so weak that workers lack other options.

unemp by group

Ending Currency Manipulation—Just Follow the Money

Growing trade deficits have cost US workers millions of jobs over the past two decades, (these were good jobs in manufacturing industries).  Currency manipulation by more than 20 countries, of which China is by far the largest, is the single most important reason why U.S. trade deficits have not decisively reversed.  Currency manipulation lowers the value of foreign currencies, relative to the U.S. dollar, which acts like a subsidy to their exports, and a tax on U.S. exports to China and every other country where the U.S. competes with the exports of currency manipulators.

In an era of fiscal austerity, ending global currency manipulation is the best way to reduce trade deficits, create jobs, and rebuild the U.S. economy, as shown in Stop Currency Manipulation and Create Millions of Jobs.   Eliminating currency manipulation would reduce the U.S. trade deficit by between $200 billion and $500 billion in three years. This would increase annual U.S. GDP by between $288 billion and $720 billion and create 2.3 million to 5.8 million jobs. About 40 percent of the jobs gained would be in manufacturing.

Ending currency manipulation would not require any government spending – a key political virtue during this time of Congressional gridlock. In fact, it would reduce the federal budget deficit by up to $266 billion dollars per year as the extra economic activity and employment it creates boosts tax revenues and reduces safety net spending. Ending currency manipulation would create jobs in every state, with gains from 8,200 jobs (2.64 percent of total employment) in the District of Columbia to 687,100 jobs (4.18 percent of employment) in California. Ending currency manipulation would likely create jobs in every Congressional District, with gains of up to 24,400 jobs (7.05 percent of employment) in the 17th District in CA.

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Fixing the Gender Wage Gap Is a Crucial Step for Women, But Not the Only Step

The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson wrote a great review of Claudia Goldin’s latest work on closing the wage gap at the upper level of the distribution. Goldin postulates that the final steps to closing the gender wage gap begin at the top rungs of the income distribution. Goldin examines MBA graduates’ earnings over their life span, and finds that the wage gap would start to close if firms didn’t have an incentive to disproportionately reward individuals “who worked long hours and who worked particular hours.” Men may be more able to choose to work long hours in a way that women, particularly in their first 10-15 years of work, may not choose to do for any number of reasons (most obviously: having kids), and whoever is willing to work these longer hours (usually men) gets disproportionately rewarded. To close the gap, Goldin calls for changes to the way jobs are structured—in short, greater work time flexibility.

While Goldin’s analysis is currently my favorite analysis for understanding gender wage inequality at the top—and I applaud her call to give high wage professionals more autonomy and encourage more flexible work schedules—her analysis doesn’t solve the question of how to close the wage gap for the majority of American workers, those who earn low- and middle-wages. (I’m also skeptical of the idea that there aren’t substantial incentives among those in power to keep the structure of high wage professions as it is or that work time flexibility will be enforced by companies even if it’s created.) For the majority of women, gender wage gaps are one way that women get the raw deal, but it is not the only way.

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What To Watch on Jobs Day: 6.5 Percent Threshold Is Obsolete

In tomorrow’s jobs report, we could well see the headline unemployment rate nudge down to 6.5 percent. This is the threshold at which the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) of the Federal Reserve had indicated they may move the short-term policy rates they control up from zero, thereby providing less monetary stimulus to the recovery.

Easing back on this stimulus would be a mistake. The economy remains far from full employment, and the headline unemployment rate is far understating the degree of economic slack remaining in the economy. This is demonstrated by the 5.85 million “missing workers”—potential workers who, because of weak job opportunities, are neither employed nor actively seeking a job. Further evidence can be seen in the 7.7 million “jobs-gap”—the number of jobs needed to restore the labor market to its pre-Great Recession health. Subdued wage and price inflation measures provide yet more evidence. The year-over-year change in the “market-based” core price deflator for personal consumption expenditures fell to 1.1 percent for all of 2013. And just today, data on unit labor costs (a key predictor of inflationary pressures in the economy) indicated that these slightly fell in the last quarter of 2013.

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The President’s Budget: More Investment in Our Future is Needed

The President released his fiscal year 2015 budget stating that his goal is “to speed up growth, strengthen the middleclass, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class,” all while reducing budget deficits.

There is much to like in the budget proposal. Mr. Obama wants to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit for childless workers, which will encourage work and reduce poverty. He also provides additional funds for child care, education, research, and infrastructure. To pay for this he proposes to eliminate various tax loopholes for hedge fund managers and multinational corporations.

Seeing as how this budget proposal has virtually no chance of outmaneuvering the GOP blockade, its chief value is to demonstrate a vision of America that better addresses the core economic problems of the middle and working classes. And in this vein, the President’s budget could have been better. (more…)

Ending Currency Manipulation Would Substantially Erase State Jobs Deficits

Last week my colleague, Rob Scott, published a report highlighting the impact of ongoing currency manipulation on employment in the United States.  In the report, Scott explained that currency manipulation by U.S. trading partners—including China, Denmark, Hong Kong, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Switzerland and Taiwan—distorts trade flows in two ways.  It raises the cost of U.S. exports, and lowers the cost of U.S. imports.

Currency manipulation has cost the U.S. economy millions of jobs, including a disproportionately large share of manufacturing jobs. The impact of these job losses is clearly evident in the Midwest, which suffered significant manufacturing job losses. Further, the displacement of  manufacturing jobs not only meant fewer job opportunities, but also the elimination of unionized jobs that pay family-supporting wages.  Ending currency manipulation would likely lead to significant growth in the American manufacturing sector, a necessary step to begin rebuilding a strong middle class.

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Elderly Women the Most Vulnerable, Social Security the Most Protective

Social Security (and other social insurance programs like Medicare and Medicaid) has significantly helped reduce elderly poverty over the last several decades. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that 15.3 million elderly people would have been in poverty in 2012 without Social Security. That would have meant close to four times more elderly people in poverty. The figure below illustrates how declines in elderly poverty are directly associated with sharp increases in per capita Social Security expenditures—evidence that direct government transfers keep many people from falling below the poverty line.

But Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid—as valuable as they are—do not provide a lavish lifestyle. Most of America’s 41 million seniors live on modest retirement incomes that cover just the costs of basic necessities and support a simple, yet dignified, quality of life. To highlight how official poverty measures may paint too rosy a picture of the living standards of America’s seniors,  my colleague Dave Cooper and I showed nearly half of the elderly population in the United States are “economically vulnerable,” defined as having an income that is less than two times the supplemental poverty threshold (a poverty line more comprehensive than the traditional federal poverty line). A data update to that analysis shows that 47.9 percent of the elderly are economically vulnerable.

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Camp Plan Shows Once Again that Lowering Tax Rates Shouldn’t Be an Economic Priority

Yesterday, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) released his long-awaited (at least among budget nerds) tax reform proposal. For those used to dealing with GOP fiscal policy proposals in recent years, it was strangely careful and serious. Yet, this proposal still highlighted the excessive importance policymakers attach to “tax reform that lowers rates,” which has been a north star of fiscal policy wonks seemingly since the dawn of time. The idea is that lowering rates will spur economic efficiency, but to make up for revenue lost to lower rates, one must broaden the tax base to which the new, lower rates apply.

Lowering income tax rates, however, reduces revenue so much—especially from wealthy individuals and businesses—that it’s mathematically difficult to make up what’s missing without completely gouging the working and middle classes. This is why Republicans have shied away from the details that would make their top-line tax reform goals work. (They are then pilloried, and rightly so, for ignoring mathematical realities.) It’s easy to lower tax rates; it’s hard to then figure out where the money is going to come from to make up for it. And the payoff in terms of increased growth from all this angst is decidedly modest. Under Rep. Camp’s plan, the federal government would lose more than $1.2 trillion over the next ten years from lower tax rates for individuals and businesses, and another $1.4 trillion by repealing the Alternative Minimum Tax. Here are the good and bad of just some of the provisions that make up for the lost revenue:

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NYT Reporters’ Anti-Public Pension Bias Leads to Faulty Conclusions

I love the New York Times. But its reporters’ slant on public employee pensions has been driving me crazy, and the latest story by Mary Williams Walsh and Rick Lyman didn’t help. Walsh has been carrying a vendetta against public pensions for many years, so it is no surprise that the article makes the unsupportable claim that none of the 40 state pension overhauls has “come close to closing their pension gaps quickly enough to keep pace with a rapidly agingand retiring—public work force.” I leave it to the reader to fully decipher that statement, but it seems to reflect the story’s headline, that “Public Pension Tabs Multiply as States Defer Costs and Hard Choices.”  It implies that despite the states’ pension overhauls, things are getting worse everywhere because public employees are aging and retiring faster than the financing is improving. It’s surely meant to be alarming, as is the chart of Moody’s Investor Service data showing 13 states with “unfunded pension liability greater than annual revenue.”

Moody’s, itself, tells a different story. Moody’s points out that its data are 20 months old and don’t reflect current balance sheets or the enormous market gains of the last 18-20 months. Moody’s points out that “A run-up in financial markets has helped shrink public pension shortfalls” since June 30, 2012, because “Investment returns provide the lion’s share of the retirement systems’ revenue”:

But fiscal 2012 ended for most states on June 30, 2012, and since then, a run-up in financial markets has helped shrink public pension shortfalls. Investment returns provide the lion’s share of the retirement systems’ revenue, and in 2013, pensions’ holdings reached record amounts.

That could make fiscal 2012 the high-water mark for pension problems that have rocked state governments over the last decade and led to a wave of pension reforms recently, according to Moody’s.

Pension liabilities “for 2012 may reflect a cyclical peak as a result of subsequent strong market returns and a rising interest rate trend,” the rating agency said.”

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A Strong Precedent for a Better Accountability System

Education policy in both the Bush and Obama administrations has suffered from failure to acknowledge a critical principle of performance evaluation in all fields, public and private—if an institution has multiple goals but is held accountable only for some, its agents, acting rationally, will increase attention paid to goals for which they are evaluated, and diminish attention to those, perhaps equally important, for which they are not evaluated.

When law and policy hold schools accountable primarily for their students’ math and reading test scores, educators inevitably, and rationally, devote less instructional resources to history, the sciences, the arts and music, citizenship, physical and emotional health, social skills, a work ethic and other curricular areas.

Over the last decade, racial minority and socio-economically disadvantaged students have suffered the most from this curricular narrowing. As those with the lowest math and reading scores, theirs are the teachers and schools who are under the most pressure to devote greater time to test prep, and less to the other subjects of a balanced instructional program.

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Detroit’s Bankruptcy Reflects a History of Racism

This is black history month. It is also the month that the Emergency Manager who took political power and control from the mostly African American residents of Detroit has presented his plan to bring the city out of the bankruptcy he steered it into. This is black history in the making, and I hope the nation will pay attention to who wins and who loses from the Emergency Manager’s plan.

Black people are by far the largest racial or ethnic population in Detroit, which has the highest percentage of black residents of any American city with a population over 100,000. Eighty-three percent of the city’s 701,000 residents are black. It continues to be an underreported story that a white state legislature and white governor took over the city and forced it to file for bankruptcy against the will of its elected representatives. It is also underreported that white governors and the white state legislature failed to provide Detroit with its fair share of state tax revenues – a significant contributor to the city’s current financial distress.

Detroit’s bankruptcy plan calls for the near-elimination of the retiree health benefits that city workers earned over the years, as well as drastic cuts in the pensions that retired and current workers have earned and counted on. It is telling, I think, that for the first time since the Michigan constitution was adopted 50 years ago, the governor chose in this case to ignore the Michigan constitution’s guarantee that public employee pension benefits will be paid in full, given that Detroit’s public workforce is majority black and represented by unions that opposed the governor’s election.

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America Without Unions

This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

 The recent defeat of its effort to unionize workers at Volkwagen’s Chattanooga, Tennessee factory was a crushing blow to the United Auto Workers, and a setback to the embattled U.S. labor movement, which could have used the morale boost of a high-profile victory.

It was also a big loss for the vast majority of Americans who must work for a living, whether they are union members or not. Without a large robust unionized sector, there is little hope that the relentless spread of low-wage work, job insecurity and economic inequality will be reversed.

Labor unions were key to the post-World War II social contract under which the benefits of economic growth were broadly shared. Collective bargaining agreements set industry-wide standards for wages and working conditions, which put pressure on nonunion firms to keep up or face union organizing drives. Politically, unions were the most important force supporting Social Security, Medicare, unemployment compensation, overtime, job safety, progressive taxes and full employment policies that promoted prosperity far beyond their membership.

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Misdirection on Assortative Mating and Income Inequality

This is a story about misdirection, how authors contort their analysis to answer a question no one is asking but make it seem as if they are answering an important current question, such as ‘why has income inequality increased?’. The consequence is to be grossly misleading or, worse, to present conclusions that are directly opposite of what one’s data show.

The paper in question is titled “US income inequality and assortative marriages” and written by Jeremy Greenwood, Nezih Guner, Georgi Kocharkov, and Cezar Santos for VoxEU.org. The research relates to an increase in positive assortative mating: “how likely a person is to marry someone of similar educational background. Since education is an important determinant of income, these patterns of matching might have an impact on the economy’s distribution of income.” Basically, if higher income men are now more likely to marry higher income women then household income inequality will grow.

The authors conclude that “rising assortative mating together with increasing labour-force participation by married women [emphasis added by me] are important in order to account for the determinants of growth in household income inequality in the US.” So, right out of the gate, a key influence not trumpeted in the headline (rising labour-force participation by married women) is introduced. But we’ll stick with the findings on assortative mating for now. The authors compare assortative mating in 2005 to that of 1960. The selection of the dates for comparison, 1960 and 2005, determines their story and they choose a misleading one. They show their key finding in the very first graph, presented below, which uses Kendall’s tau statistic to measure the relationship between husband’s and wife’s educational levels. The higher the tau statistic ‘the higher is the degree of positive assortative mating.”

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The UAW was Right to Appeal the Election Decision in Tennessee

I was glad to see the United Auto Workers (UAW) file objections with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) over the nasty campaign by anti-union Tennessee politicians to affect the results of the union election at Volkswagen last week. It would be so enlightening for the NLRB to question Sen. Corker (R-Tenn.) under oath about his alleged conversations with the “real decision makers” at VW, the supposed source of his threat/promise that voting in the UAW would doom the VW plant’s hopes for expansion. Was Corker lying, or were VW executives breaking their neutrality agreement with the UAW and using Corker to help defeat the union? If he was VW’s secret agent, the election should be set aside.

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Is the Retirement Crisis a Mirage? (Part 2)

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed last month, Sylvester Schieber and Andrew Biggs said that census data failed to capture much of the income Americans derive from 401(k) and IRA plans. Though no one denies that the data don’t include some distributions from retirement accounts, the extent of the under-reporting is under dispute, with Biggs and Schieber claiming census data ignore 60% or more of the money that seniors receive.

In an earlier blog post, I noted that Schieber and Biggs may be basing this attention-grabbing claim on Internal Revenue Service measures that count rollovers from one retirement account to another as “income.” At an American Enterprise Institute event today, Paul Van de Water of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who first brought the rollover issue to my attention, asked Schieber whether he based his claims on IRS measures of total or taxable income from retirement plans. Whereas taxable income measures exclude Roth IRA distributions, total income measures include these distributions, but also rollovers. As Federal Reserve and IRS researchers have explained, rollovers are included in some IRS income measures even if taxes aren’t owed on the amounts (and whether or not households report the transactions) because financial service providers report them to the IRS.

So, which measures are Schieber and Biggs using—total or taxable income from retirement plans? Schieber wasn’t able to answer, deferring to a coauthor, Billie Jean Miller, who wasn’t present. This should raise eyebrows, since Schieber has been making the same point for years and Social Security Administration researcher John Woods raised the rollover issue back in 1996.

Without claiming any familiarity with IRS data, it appears to me that Schieber and Miller are using measures of total income from these accounts, at least with respect to pension and annuity income. In Exhibit 5 of their Journal of Retirement article, for example, Schieber and Miller cite an IRS measure of pension and annuity income of $812 billion for 2008. According to summary statistics published by the IRS, total pension and annuity income was $845 billion in 2008, whereas taxable pension and annuity income was $506 billion (all figures have been rounded). Though Schieber and Miller’s figure is somewhat smaller than the IRS measure of total pension and annuity income, the difference could be due to revisions or differences between the internal IRS data and micro-data made available for public use.

 

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Most of the Decline in Labor Force Participation in the Last Six Years is Cyclical

Over the last six years, the labor force participation rate dropped by several percentage points. There is a debate over how much of that drop is a direct result of the lack of job opportunities in the Great Recession and its aftermath (changes that are generally labeled cyclical), and how much is instead a result of long-run trends, such as baby boomers beginning to retire (changes that are generally labeled structural). A recent blog post in the Wall Street Journal said that among Federal Reserve officials, the view that much of the decline is structural is gaining traction. If true, that’s a problem. My read of the data shows that most of the decline is cyclical, so if the Fed believes it’s structural, it means they believe there’s less slack in the economy than there really is.

Part of the misunderstanding is that there are two components of structural change. First, there are population shifts. Age groups that tend to have lower labor force participation rates are now a larger share of the population (think retiring boomers). These are called “compositional” shifts. Accounting for purely compositional changes by gender and age, more than 40 percent of the decline in the labor force participation rate over the last six years can be accounted for. Many people doing a quick analysis on this topic tend to stop there.

However, the other component of structural change is made up of long-run trends in labor force participation within age/gender groups. The labor force participation rate among people under age 25 has been declining since the 1980s, in part due to increasing college and university enrollment. The continuation of that long-run trend accounts for an additional structural decline in the overall labor force participation rate over the last six years. The projected trend in labor force participation rate of workers age 25-54 was virtually flat, so that trend did not meaningfully contribute to structural changes over the last six years. The trend labor force participation of workers age 55+, however, was expected to rise significantly over this period, particularly for women, as cohorts with much stronger labor force attachment throughout their 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s than the cohorts that preceded them began aging into this age bracket. In other words, that’s a structural change that should have substantially contributed to an increase in labor force participation over this period.

Putting these factors together—the compositional changes between gender/age groups and the structural trends within gender/age groups—the result is that only around a quarter of the total drop in labor force participation over the last six years is structural. This means that around 75 percent of it is cyclical. In other words, there are now around 5.8 million workers who are not in the labor force but who would be if job opportunities were strong. If these workers were in the labor market looking for work, the unemployment rate right now would be 10.0 percent instead of 6.6 percent. That is a lot of additional slack in the labor market.

It has been pointed out that it is likely that at least some of the workers who are out of the labor force due to cyclical factors are people who gave up and decided to retire early. Given that retirees are less likely to reenter the labor force when job opportunities improve, improving economic conditions may not draw these workers back in. This means that labeling them as being out of the labor force due to cyclical factors may not be very useful. However, it is important to note that there are large participation gaps for workers age 54 or younger, who are unlikely to be early retirees. In fact, more than 70 percent of the 5.8 million missing workers are under age 55. These missing workers under age 55—4.2 million of them—are therefore unlikely to be deterred from entering or re-entering the labor force when job opportunities strengthen.

Want to Lower The Deficit? Forget Sequestration, Keep Slowing Federal Health Care Cost Growth

While much of the reaction to the most recent CBO Budget and Economic Outlook (released earlier this month) focused on the labor market impacts of the Affordable Care Act, it’s important to note that this report actually contained a multitude of interesting findings and updated projections. Among the most important is CBO’s revised projection of the costs of federal health care programs—Medicare, Medicaid, ACA subsidies, and some smaller programs as well—over the next decade. For the fourth year in a row, CBO revised these cost projections downward. The figure below shows CBO’s projections of these costs in the decade following each Budget and Economic Outlook published since 2011.

While health care costs remain the fastest growing portion of the federal budget, and are still projected by CBO to grow significantly faster than the overall economy over the next decade, the downward revisions of the past three years are quite significant. Put simply, since 2011, CBO’s projection of what the level of federal health spending will be in 2021 has dropped by $183 billion, or about 10.4 percent.

To put this in perspective, when lawmakers passed the counterproductive, indiscriminate sequestration spending cuts as part of 2011’s Budget Control Act (BCA), they were looking at projections of federal health spending over the following decade that the latest estimates indicate were $900 billion too high. The $1.2 trillion in “sequestration” cuts over the decade, with their damaging effect to public investment and to the still-incomplete economic recovery, look even more unnecessary in this light.

Genuinely informed budget wonks know that the BCA cuts were particularly perverse because they took an ax to the portion of the budget— discretionary spending—that is not projected to grow in coming years, relative to the economy. To the extent that long-run budget projections highlight a need for restraining spending, this is entirely driven by the rapid rise in health care costs—both public and private. And these health care costs have rapidly decelerated in recent years. This deceleration began even before the provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) meant to restrain cost-growth went into effect. Health care costs are so important in driving long-run budget trends that if the cost-growth slowdown of the past five years continues, there will be no long-run budget deficit problem. Lawmakers who actually cared about long-run budget deficits, not to mention living standards of typical Americans, would reverse the damaging cuts to discretionary spending and instead continue to press for efficiencies that further slow health care cost growth.

Mapping Inequality

Mark Price and Estelle Sommeiller’s new paper traces the trajectory of top incomes in American states and regions from 1917 through 2011. Mapping this data across the continental United States and over the last century suggests both important similarities across states, and some key differences.

On the map below, the states tip from green to red when the top 10 percent’s share of income exceeds one-third. In the early years, inequality (as measured by the high income share of top earners), is starkest in the Northeast. This inequality is generalized by the impact of depression and war in the 1930s and 1940s, but once the policy innovations of the New Deal (collective bargaining, retirement security, labor standards, and financial regulation) take hold, inequality eases: by the middle 1950s, only New York and the Deep South are still colored red.

The pattern across the last generation is just as telling. Of the sixteen states to top this threshold in 1972, the only ones outside the South were the tri-state home of big finance—New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. As we scroll forward from there, the states in which the top 10 percent claim less than a third of total income gradually diminish, disappearing entirely by 1989. By 2011, the top 10 percent are claiming almost 60 percent of income in New York and Connecticut, and over 40 percent in all but three states (Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota).