On Redistribution

In the United States people hate the idea of redistribution. I was remarking the other day while reading a political science journal article that American culture operates with a background sense that using public policy to improve ones economic fortunes is illegitimate. The only legitimate way, in American culture, to improve ones economic standing is through hard work in the traditional labor market.

 

This is one contributing factor to why redistribution is viewed so negatively in our country. To be seen as deserving, one has to be seen as hardworking, and hardworking and economically successful are tied in the way we think about people in our country. We use a heuristic to tell ourselves that rich people are hard working and that poor people are lazy because it is easier than considering the alternative, and it also confirms to how we want the world to work, at least if we are relatively well off or see ourselves as becoming more financially successful in the future. We want to believe that our good economic standing and future earnings potential reflect our own industriousness and not just a set of favorable circumstances beyond our control.

 

In their book The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak look at our behavior around redistribution and consider how it fits with the framework for local action that they develop. Redistribution is an area where they find an interesting split between the role of federal and local governments.

 

“Major redistributive policies, such as the earned income tax credit, are best pursued at the federal level. Federal redistribution is more effective than more local efforts because the federal government has a larger pool of income from which to draw and there is less capacity to opt out. Federal redistribution is largely people based. State redistribution is generally linked to providing support for public goods in jurisdictions with taxing capacity disadvantages.”

 

I find it really interesting to think that the federal government’s redistribution programs are more people-based than local programs, but I think I understand why that might be. At the local level, we become upset when we see a person in our community who is accepting some form of assistance from the government while simultaneously driving a new car or leaving a nail salon. In some way, when we see an actual person who is benefiting from a redistributive program and using their resources in a way we find inappropriate given what we judge their priorities to be, we feel cheated. We feel that the economic assistance provided to them should have been spent on other local pressing problems rather than on supporting someone who using the financial aid unwisely. This makes local adoption of redistributive programs for individuals more challenging. At a national level, the quote from Katz and Nowak seems to suggest, we likely won’t recall as many of these hyper-local context examples, or just won’t be as aware of the aid, and won’t be as keen to notice the effects of a redistributive policy.

 

Another local level wrinkle that influences the policy appraoches from Katz and Nowak’s quote is that we don’t want to live in a city or region that is known for its slums. Those of us who are affluent enough will likely make efforts to avoid local trailer home regions and find ways around the lower socioeconomic parts of town. We won’t want to acknowledge these regions because they make our entire community look worse, especially from the outside or when commented on by national media. These pressures may make us more willing to have government take action to “clean-up” these economically depressed regions. We see a personal benefit to ourselves in having our city invest more in economically weak regions. We don’t see the same personal benefit from redistributive programs that help other individuals.