Dependency of America

Greg Mankiw, a Harvard University economics professor (OK, he’s the Chairman of the Department of Economics), has on his blog some hard numbers that show the increasing dependency of Americans on government.  Here’s what he says [bold emphasis added; italic emphasis in the original]:

Because transfer payments are, in effect, the opposite of taxes, it makes sense to look not just at taxes paid, but at taxes paid minus transfers received.  For 2009, the most recent year available, here are taxes less transfers as a percentage of market income (income that households earned from their work and savings):

  • Bottom quintile: -301 percent
  • Second quintile: -42 percent
  • Middle quintile: -5 percent
  • Fourth quintile: 10 percent
  • Highest quintile: 22 percent
  • Top one percent: 28 percent

The negative 301 percent means that a typical family in the bottom quintile receives about $3 in transfer payments for every dollar earned.

The most surprising fact to me was that the effective tax rate is negative for the middle quintile.  According to the CBO data, this number was +14 percent in 1979 (when the data begins) and remained positive through 2007.  It was negative 0.5 percent in 2008, and negative 5 percent in 2009.  That is, the middle class, having long been a net contributor to the funding of government, is now a net recipient of government largess.

The CBO report can be read here or here.  The supplemental tables, which contain the Table 7 from which Mankiw made the calculations above, are here.

I recognize that part of this change is attributable to temporary measures to deal with the deep recession.  But it is noteworthy nonetheless, as other deep recessions, such as that in 1982, did not produce a similar policy response.

Again, I ask: what are we to make of the motives of the politicians that are doing this, knowing as these highly intelligent and rational human beings do, what the outcome is?

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