Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Means-Testing Troubles

Yuval Levin's provocative essay on going "Beyond the Welfare State" offers the following prescription for a conservative re-thinking of entitlements:
Second, essentially all government benefits — including benefits for the elderly — should be means-tested so that those in greater need receive more help and those who are not needy do not become dependent on public support. Most retirees would still receive some public benefits (and the poorest could well get more than they do now), but the design of our welfare programs would avoid creating the misimpression that they are savings programs. People who are already retired or nearly so today should be exempted from such means-testing, as they have planned for decades around the existing system; Americans below 55 or so, however, should expect public help only if they are in need once they retire. Means-testing should, to the extent possible, be designed to avoid discouraging saving and work. And private retirement savings should be strongly encouraged and incentivized, so that people who have the means would build private nest eggs with less reliance on government.
Means-testing for entitlements for the elderly has been notion recently gaining in popularity among some sectors of the right, but I think there is reason for some skepticism about means-testing all elderly entitlements, particularly Social Security.

One of the more dangerous aspects of Great Society-style welfare was its encouragement of unsustainable and deleterious behaviors. Welfare checks provided to single mothers were no doubt motivated by a worthy spirit of compassion, but those very same checks indirectly financed the breakdown of the urban family. Rather than ending misery, they often ended up subsidizing it. Unlike private charity, government subsidies can create a sense of entitlement that may undermine the behaviors necessary to support a government capable of providing such subsidies.

As it stands now, Social Security mostly avoids that trap. Whether you manage your resources well in retirement or manage them poorly, you receive the same check. Far from encouraging bad economic behavior, Social Security tends to reward good economic behavior: if you achieve success in the workplace and improve your salary, you also reap a higher Social Security check when you retire. But even if you struggle in the workplace, you still will collect some benefit to help you in your old age. In many respects, this is exactly how government should work from a conservative perspective: it rewards industry but also provides a safety net for the less fortunate.

Means-testing could utterly vitiate that structural tendency. Instead of rewarding a person for economic success over a career, means-testing for Social Security could penalize them for this success. Levin notes some of the challenges of means-testing when he says that means-testing "should, to the extent possible, be designed to avoid discouraging saving and work." Yet I think it might be very hard to means-test Social Security so that it did not discourage saving and work.

If we means-tested Social Security based on the net-worth of a household, we would give the elderly little incentive to save. Say government offers the following choice: live close to the bone for years until you exhaust your savings and then get a Social Security benefit OR spend it extravagantly and then get that very same benefit. What choice would many people make? While elderly men and women are unlikely to start an explosion of illegitimacy (thankfully), subsidizing profligacy and discouraging prudence are rarely smart policies for a government; our current economic troubles are testament to the dangers of that course of action.

Means-testing on income could result in a significant lowering of the standard of living for the elderly. Right now, elderly Americans who have some level of health can work to supplement their Social Security income and so raise their standard of living. Means-testing could take that incentive away. The elderly could sit home and collect that government check OR they could go out and work, with the dollars earned in the workplace eating into their government checks. Many people of an advanced age would find it hard to earn enough in the market in order to make more than their government-guaranteed income, so many elderly Americans might find Social Security checks the absolute limit for their income.

I suppose some of these doubts are predicated on my suspicion that Social Security is not driving any potential entitlements crisis. Currently around 4.8% of GDP, Social Security is scheduled to peak at around 6.1% of GDP and stay around there for as far as federal actuarial accounting can see. That is a manageable number and a manageable increase. Many deficits the program may face could be eliminated by making a few relatively minor changes to the program (such as raising the cap on taxable income). Compared to something like Medicare, Social Security is very sustainable.

Granted, some of these objections could be worked around, but fiddling with Social Security is a dangerous business, and not only from a short-term electoral perspective. Compared to many government programs (including many means-tested ones), Social Security provides a social insurance safety net of equity while also encouraging individual initiative and prudence. Those advantages should not be overlooked.

(Crossposted at FrumForum)

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