Chapter 20 of my favorite textbook has a section on antipoverty programs and work incentives. One basic point is that when multiple income-based programs are piled on top on one another, the implicit marginal tax rate can reach or even exceed 100 percent.
The chart above (source,
) illustrates this phenomenon. It shows income after taxes and transfers as a function of earned income. Notice that as earned income rises from about $15,000 to $30,000, income after taxes and transfers is roughly flat. Indeed, it could even fall. The bottom line: If you are poor, the government is inadvertently ensuring that you have little incentive to try to improve your condition.
Request to CBO: Can you please make and disseminate charts like the one above? Producing this kind of chart correctly is not easy (and I cannot fully vouch for the accuracy of this one) because a variety of different government programs are involved, and their rules are often complex. CBO has the staff to do it right. Moreover, if such a chart came from a high profile, widely respected, and nonpartisan source such as CBO, the problem would get more attention. It certainly deserves it.
I bet there are people in the Obama administration who are quietly worrying about this problem. Why do I say this? Read this old post
. The story there is told by Jeff Liebman, a very smart Kennedy School professor now working for President Obama
is some related work by Larry Kotlikoff and David Rapson.