The Case for the Wage Subsidy

Americans across the political spectrum should focus on how best to spend government money already slated to go out the door.

.. The controversial subsidies that New York and Washington offered Amazon to attract its “HQ2” are not some novel approach to economic development. Last year, Wisconsin offered a larger package of incentives to entice electronics supplier Foxconn, assembler of iPhones, to build a $10 billion manufacturing facility in Wisconsin. Annual payroll for 13,000 workers would exceed $700 million, and Wisconsin expected the plant to generate annual state and local tax revenue of $181 million and lead to the creation of 20,000 additional jobs. Critics panned the deal as corporate welfare, to which Governor Scott Walker fired back, “That’s fine, but I think they can go suck lemons.”

.. The value of the subsidy would be set relative to a “target wage” of, say, $15 per hour and would close half the gap between the market wage and the target. A worker would initially receive a subsidy of $3 per hour in this case, equal to approximately $6,000 per year if he worked full-time.

.. This differs from most programs that transfer resources to lower-income households, including the EITC, which phase out as the household’s total income rises; for every additional dollar earned by the household, the worker loses some of the benefits he was receiving. With the direct wage subsidy, the worker receives the same subsidy for every hour worked at a given wage, no matter how much total income he earns. He can take a second job and earn the subsidy for each of those hours. His wife can take a job and earn her own subsidy, too. The value of the subsidy declines only as workers become more productive, earning promotions and raises.
.. First, the wage subsidy is the appropriate mechanism for redistributing gains from the economy’s “winners” to its “losers.” It comes closest to doing this directly, by taking tax revenue drawn from higher earners and inserting it directly into the paychecks of lower earners.
.. Second, the wage subsidy offsets subsidies given to foreign producers and moves the cost to employers for domestic workers closer to parity with what firms pay foreign workers living in sharply different social and economic contexts. The benefit is largest for industries where the work is most labor-intensive and relies on the lowest-cost labor — in other words, the industries under greatest pressure from globalization. But it does this through a neutral structure
..  A community lacking the ability to export (even to the rest of the nation) must rely on government transfer payments to fund the resources it requires from the outside world — the community is literally exporting need. The existing American safety net conditions those transfers on very low incomes — often, no work at all — and channels them primarily toward consumption of health-care services. With a wage subsidy, work, rather than unemployment, draws government support, and that support can flow to a fuller range of productive activities in the community. In this model, a services economy can still thrive disconnected from a tradeable sector — not an ideal arrangement but one far better than today’s.

This invites the question, Isn’t the wage subsidy just another form of redistribution, like all the safety-net programs we already have? Yes and no. Yes, it is redistribution. And yes, high-income taxpayers will finance it. But unlike with government assistance disconnected from work, the value of a productive job through which someone supports her family and contributes to her community is not diluted if it yields a paycheck into which the government has put in more than it takes out. Certainly a society of thriving and perfectly self-sufficient families would be preferable. But America is nowhere near such a reality today, and for some people, it may never happen. If we can at least make redistribution a tool for creating jobs and promoting work, we will be moving the labor market in the right direction and delivering better outcomes for those who need support.

.. They might accept a subsidy as a replacement for existing safety-net programs, but if cutting safety-net spending is on the table, many would prefer to spend that savings on a growth-generating tax cut.
.. What really infuriates Democrats, meanwhile, is the possibility that employers might benefit. Factually speaking, they have a point. If the government offers a $3 subsidy atop a $9-per-hour job, the result will not necessarily be a $12-per-hour job. The employer might instead cut the market wage to $8, to which the government would add $3.50 — half the $7 gap to the target wage of $15 — leaving the worker with $11.50. Both worker and employer are better off than without the subsidy, but the entire benefit is not the worker’s.
.. roughly 75 percent of the financial benefit accrued to workers. In general, employers have to benefit at least somewhat. A central premise of the wage subsidy is to pull more prospective workers into the labor force. Other things held equal, if the supply of workers increases, then employers will be able to offer lower wages — even as, thanks to the subsidy, workers take home more... Remember, the wage subsidy’s goal is not only, or even primarily, to transfer resources into the pockets of low-income households. It is also to connect more workers with employers in permanent jobs. The task requires employers to do the hard work of hiring and training certain employees whom they otherwise would not, and this benefits society greatly.

A central premise of the wage subsidy is to reward employers sufficiently so that they choose to do more. By contrast, just wishing that firms would create more and better jobs when they have no economic incentive to do so is futile; it has zero bearing on what will happen in the actual labor market.

.. Note that this need to create incentives for the employer is no different from what happens in any other effort at assisting low-income households in a market economy. When people use food stamps at the supermarket, the supermarket benefits. When they use housing vouchers to pay the rent, the landlord benefits. Unless the government wishes to produce everything itself, or order market participants to take actions against their own interests, efforts to deliver results that the market will not deliver for low-income households always benefit the businesses that choose to participate in the transactions. Otherwise, they wouldn’t participate!

.. It is a strange consequence of our commitment to individuals as consumers that we unthinkingly pay hundreds of billions of dollars each year to hospitals and universities to provide treatment and education to customers whom they otherwise would turn away but that we shrink from the idea that society might pay anything to an employer to hire someone he otherwise would not.

.. Just as the Republican party’s relative disinterest in the labor market is made apparent by its preference for a tax cut over a wage subsidy, a good distillation of the Democrats’ core attitude toward the labor market emerges from comparing a wage subsidy to their preferred approach: the minimum wage. Raising the minimum wage is the quintessential left-of-center labor-market policy. Unsatisfied with the market outcome, Democrats suggest decreeing a different one. The outcome it professes to deliver is widely desired. It seems “free.” And then it damages, rather than strengthens, the labor market.

.. The minimum wage and the wage subsidy both aim to raise the earnings of low-wage workers, but whereas the wage subsidy asks taxpayers to make up the difference, the minimum wage asks employers to

.. The wage subsidy injects funds from outside the labor market to boost the formation of employment relationships and encourage greater investment in labor-intensive businesses. The minimum wage does the opposite, operating as a tax on low-wage employment that employers have to pay for every low-wage hour they use.

.. The roughly $200 billion price tag for a wage subsidy might require some new tax revenue, but its funding could come largely from the existing safety net, which already dedicates more than $1 trillion annually to low-income households