How Welfare Left Americans Poorer
PHOTO: TING SHEN/ZUMA PRESS
A Census Bureau report shows the high cost of transfer payments.
The Census Bureau released its 2021 income report Tuesday, and the political spin is that unprecedented pandemic transfer payments lifted millions out of poverty. It’s more accurate to say that most Americans are worse off than before the pandemic owing in part to . . . unprecedented transfer payments.
Lifting government lockdowns last year should have caused millions of Americans to return to work and raised average incomes. That didn’t happen. Real median pre-tax household income fell $402 last year to $70,784 and was $2,024 lower than in 2019. The total number of workers didn’t budge between 2020 and 2021.
Millions of Americans whose hours were cut during lockdowns did return to full-time work, but many laid-off Americans stayed home. The number of full-time, year-round workers increased by 11.1 million last year, but their real median earnings declined 4.1%.
Rising prices (see nearby) may have reduced the incentive to work as the purchasing power of paychecks declined. But the Census report also underscores the outsize effects of the March 2021 $1.9 trillion spending bill, which helped drive the “supplemental” poverty measure (which accounts for transfer payments) to a record low even though the official poverty rate didn’t improve.
The $300 a week unemployment benefit boost finally lapsed last September, but transfer payments on the whole grew last year. These included the $3,600 child tax credit; $1,400 payments for each adult and child; food stamps averaging about $230 a person a month; expanded Affordable Care Act (ACA) premium subsidies, and more.
The ACA subsidy enhancement, in particular, has enabled pre-Medicare age Americans to retire early. Adding up all of last year’s government largesse, a lower-income family with two young children would have received nearly $24,000 in “free” cash, which doesn’t even include the cost of government health coverage.
We’ve written about how a March 2020 law restricts states from ending Medicaid for people no longer financially eligible as long as the national pandemic emergency is in effect. The same law suspended food stamp work requirements and raised benefits. When leisure pays as much as work, fewer work.
Democrats highlight the Census Bureau’s finding that 1.1 million fewer Americans were without health insurance last year than in 2020. But the bigger story was the shift from private to government health coverage. The number of people with private plans fell by 1.5 million while enrollment in Medicaid increased by 3.2 million and Medicare by 1.7 million.
This underscores warnings that Medicaid and ACA subsidy expansions might induce small employers to drop coverage, especially as they have to pay more to attract workers. Medicaid spending has increased by about a third during the pandemic and amounted to $33,000 last year for each new Medicaid enrollee.
Government had to support struggling Americans when government shut down the economy in 2020. But Democrats used Covid to expand the welfare state long after the crisis has passed. Americans are paying for it via inflation that has eroded their incomes.
Real median post-tax income including transfer payments declined last year by 1% for all households, 2.9% for those without children and 4.2% for seniors. Most Americans are worse off than they would have been had that $1.9 trillion bill never passed.