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This report tallies all federal spending and tax subsidies aimed at promoting the economic mobility of Americans for 1980, 2006, and 2012. This first effort at defining a mobility budget—$746 billion in 2006—reaches two major conclusions: (1) poor and lower-income households owe little or no tax and so are excluded from the bulk of economic mobility programs, which are often delivered in the form of tax subsidies; and (2) while these households do benefit from many other federal programs, those programs generally are not aimed at promoting mobility—and sometimes even discourage it. Furthermore, under current law, mobility enhancing programs targeted to toward lower income households would decline as a share of GDP from 2006 to 2012, while those targeted to the better off would increase over the same period.
In an economically mobile market economy, individuals and families are able
to raise their private incomes, wealth, and ability (sometimes referred to as human
capital) over time and across generations. In the United States, many associate
economic mobility with the pursuit of the American Dream. Education, work
experience, and saving enhance the opportunity for upward economic mobility.
To this end, many federal spending and tax expenditure or tax subsidy programs
aim to enhance economic mobility. But exactly how much does the federal
government encourage economic mobility? What form does this encouragement
take? And who benefits from these efforts?
To begin answering these questions, we trace federal expenditures and tax
subsidies through an array of spending and tax programs that can be broadly
classified as aimed at enhancing economic mobility. We show these expenditures
in 1980, 2006, and projected to 2012 under the type of budget baseline developed
by the Congressional Budget Office. Within the federal mobility budget, we classify
several hundred programs into 10 broad budget categories:
- Employer-related work subsidies (e.g., 401(k) plans and exclusion of
employer contributions for medical insurance premiums and medical care);
- Homeownership (e.g., capital gains exclusion on home sales and exclusion
of net imputed rental income on owner-occupied homes);
- Savings and investment incentives (e.g., dividend exclusion and expensing
of certain small investments);
- Education and training (e.g., Title I Education for the Disadvantaged,
higher education, and Job Corps);
- Child health and nutrition (e.g., Medicaid and child nutrition);
- Work supports (e.g., earned income tax credit [EITC] and child care
entitlement to states);
- Other child well-being (e.g., foster care and children’s welfare services);
- Business incentives and development (e.g., Economic Development
Administration and Small Business Administration);
- Citizenship services (e.g., refugee and entrant assistance);
- Equal opportunity services (e.g., minority business development and
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission).
We separate expenditures and subsidies in the remainder of the budget into
other assistance largely aimed at maintaining income and increasing consumption
(e.g., Social Security, Medicare, cash welfare, or SSI), or other spending largely
for public goods (e.g., public infrastructure and research). The distinctions
between mobility versus consumption and individual versus public goods are,
like all budgetary classifications, somewhat blurred. For instance, programs
that target a defined group, such as homeowners or renters, are usually counted
in mobility or in consumption, respectively. Programs with geographic targets,
such as the Appalachian region or areas affected by Hurricane Katrina, without
identifying corporate or individual beneficiaries, are classified as public goods even
though individuals or the firms that employ them are receiving the funds at some
point. Thus, budget classifications are not meant to value alternative uses of public
funds but to help sort out and account for the nation’s established priorities. Here
we attempt to tease out through a budgetary exercise how much of the federal
budget is directed toward improving individual economic mobility.
Our findings are as follows:
- A considerable slice of federal funds has been aimed toward programs
promoting mobility at some level. In 2006 alone, about $212 billion or
1.6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in direct spending and another
$534 billion or 4.1 percent of GDP in tax subsidies went to programs aimed
at promoting mobility, for a rough total of $746 billion. (The measure itself
is rough because of the inevitable issues of categorization, and because one
cannot strictly sum tax expenditures together.)
- Roughly 72 percent of this $746 billion in mobility expenditures, or $540
billion, is delivered mainly through employer-provided work subsidies, aids
in asset accumulation, and savings incentives. This spending flows mainly
to middle- and higher-income households and often excludes lower-income
households or provides them comparably little in benefits.
- The remaining 28 percent, or $205 billion, of the mobility budget is channeled
through programs that favor lower- to moderate-income individuals.
- Even when the tax and spending incentives directed at middle-income
households provide them with greater (relative) benefits than the rich receive,
the effect may be to inflate key asset prices (e.g., higher prices for homes than
would otherwise be the case). Such inflation places these assets further out
of reach for the excluded poor and lower middle-income classes. Consequently,
the absolute and relative mobility of lower-rung groups is undercut.
- From 1980 to 2006, the mobility budget as measured here has risen from
5.2 to 5.7 percent of GDP. During this same period, income maintenance
programs rose slightly less, from 9.3 to 9.9 percent (with non-child Social
Security growing substantially while the rest of income maintenance fell).
- Income maintenance programs tend to be moderately more directed toward
those with lower incomes. At times, however, these programs may impede
economic mobility by discouraging work and saving, especially for those
with the fewest resources. (We do not assess whether these programs help
in achieving greater equalization of consumption, which is a different
objective than mobility, as measured by independent economic status.)
Finally, much of the spending that falls into our residual budget category
includes public goods that may also promote absolute mobility for the population
as a whole. We do not examine that possibility here. At the same time, most
of these programs are not directed toward promoting relative mobility.
The net result is a budget of direct spending and tax subsidies that attempts to
promote absolute economic mobility for some but, in many areas stymies relative
and intergenerational mobility in the acquisition of private assets, income,
education, and ability. Trend lines into the future show a likely deterioration,
not improvement, in these conditions.
(End of summary. The entire report is available in PDF format.)