How do we boost the incomes of Americans in the lower half (or two-thirds) of the distribution? I’ve discussed what I think are some helpful and some probably-not-so-helpful proposals. But our focus shouldn’t be exclusively on income. The well-being of lower- and middle-class Americans can be improved markedly by enhanced provision of government services.
Service use (consumption) doesn’t show up in income statistics. But services matter for living standards. If I have two kids in a public school that spends about $10,000 per year per child, I’m receiving the equivalent of a government transfer of $20,000. Other public services and public spaces — health care, child care, policing, transportation, roads, parks, libraries, and so on — have the same property. So too does free time funded or mandated by government via holidays and paid parental leave.
When provided by government at little or no cost to users, these services are akin to a transfer given in equal dollar amounts to all individuals or households. Our tax system is roughly flat: households at different points in the income distribution pay approximately the same share of their market (pretransfer-pretax) income in taxes. But a flat tax rate means those with high incomes pay many more dollars in taxes than do poor households. If the value of the government services the rich and poor use is roughly the same in dollars, then the tax-services system overall is quite redistributive. Here’s a way to see this, using tax payment data for 2004 and hypothetical data for consumption of public services:
Some services charge user fees that are structured progressively; those with higher incomes pay more. This makes the tax-services system even more redistributive. Financial aid means this is true for public (and many private) colleges here in the U.S., though we could go much farther. In Denmark and Sweden, fees for child care are scaled according to household income.
Imagine an America in which high-quality public services raise the consumption floor to a high level: most citizens can put their kids in high-quality child care followed by good public schooling and affordable access to a good college; they have access to good health care throughout life; they can get to or near work on clean and efficient public transportation or roads with limited congestion; they enjoy clean and safe neighborhoods, parks, roads, museums, libraries, and other public spaces; they have low-cost access to information, communication, and entertainment via reliable high-speed broadband; they have four weeks of paid vacation each year, an additional week or so of paid sickness leave, and a year of paid family leave to care for a child or other needy relative. Even if the degree of income inequality were no less than today and we still had CEOs, financiers, and entertainers raking in tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in a single year, that society would be markedly less unequal than our current one.
It’s worth emphasizing that markets too boost the consumption floor. New technologies and consumer products — indoor plumbing, cars, air conditioning, cell phones, ipods, and many others — have eventually become affordable for even the least well-off, and in doing so they reduce inequality of living standards. But markets haven’t, and likely won’t, bring us affordability coupled with high quality in health care, education, child care, safety, and mass ground transportation. In these and other areas, government is needed.
The United States provides less in the way of public services than many other rich countries, but we nevertheless have a rich history here, from universal elementary and secondary education to the interstate highway system to the internet. There’s a legacy to build on, and good reason to do so.