Disincentives, Still Crazy After All These Years

Mr. Alexander reports that a single mother of two in the Keystone State earning no wages will obtain welfare benefits—such as food stamps, child care and Medicaid services—worth more than $45,000 annually. If the woman begins earning wages, her total annual income, including the value of her welfare benefits, will rise as well—up to about $9,000 in wages. But the next $5,000 in wages will not increase her total income, because she will lose some Medicaid and other benefits. In short, she faces the equivalent of a 100% marginal tax.

From about $14,000 to $29,000 of gross wages, she will also lose government benefits such that her total annual income will rise only about $5,000—an effective marginal tax rate of 67%. At $29,000 of wages, the woman will realize a little less than $57,000 in net income plus benefits. Once she earns more than $29,000 in wages her housing subsidies and food subsidies drop way down. With wages above $43,000, her child-care subsidies disappear, and once her wages top $57,000 her family will no longer qualify for the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

What this means is that her total income—welfare benefits plus wages, minus taxes—won’t reach $57,000 until her gross wage income rises to $69,000. In other words, the money earned by her between $29,000 and $69,000 faces a marginal tax rate, on average, of 100%. She receives no net benefit from her labor. Now if that doesn’t motivate you to get up and go to work, I don’t know what will.