Academic journal article Independent Review

The Middle Class and the Swedish Welfare State: How Not to Measure Redistribution

Academic journal article Independent Review

The Middle Class and the Swedish Welfare State: How Not to Measure Redistribution

Article excerpt

Big welfare states, with taxes near 50 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), still exist in the Scandinavian countries. It is widely assumed that bigger welfare states redistribute more income from the rich to the poor. The evidence for this assumption, however, is surprisingly shaky. Furthermore, the fact that taxes and government expenditures remain at very high levels does not necessarily mean that redistribution is constant. There are clear signs that the Swedish welfare state is becoming more beneficial for the middle class, but the standard method that welfare-state scholars in economics, sociology, and political science use to quantify redistribution does not detect this development. (1)

In this article, I first describe the method typically used to evaluate redistribution. Next, I discuss two problems with this standard approach: first, it does not account for behavioral responses to welfare programs; and, second, it does not detect how political mechanisms change the structure of the welfare state into something particularly beneficial for the middle class. I illustrate this middle-class bias with several Swedish examples. Before concluding, I discuss publicly financed primary schooling, a welfare-state component with a clear effect on inequality that the standard method does not capture.

The Standard Approach to Measuring Redistribution

The most commonly used approach to measuring welfare-state redistribution is to compare the income distribution before taxes and transfers with the distribution after taxes and transfers and to assume that the welfare state causes the difference. (2) With few variations, this approach is used by Kakwani (1986), Mitchell (1991), Stephens (1995), Korpi and Palme (1998), Solera (2001), Bradley et al. (2003), Moiler et al. (2003), Iversen (2005), and Smeeding and Sandstrom (2005). More than twenty years ago, Uusitalo (1985) identified and analyzed several problems with the standard approach, but because no obvious alternative exists, the approach is still used, notwithstanding the notable risk that the research will give rise to incorrect policy conclusions.

The approach is normally applied as follows. The analyst calculates the Gini coefficient for gross income. (3) The calculation is made for households or (less often) for individuals, usually the adult population. The same calculation is made for net income--that is, income after taxes and transfers have been taken into account. Finally, the analyst calculates the relative reduction in the Gini coefficient to produce a measure of redistribution for use in cross-country comparisons and regressions (see, for example, table A4.3 in Iversen 2005). Variations on the theme include using poverty ratios instead of Gini coefficients, as for example in Moller et al. 2003.

Smeeding and Sandstrom formulate a typical conclusion from these studies: "[I]n general, the larger and more inclusive the social insurance system, ... the larger the antipoverty effect" (2005, 7-8). They also state that the systems in Sweden and Germany have the largest effects on poverty among the elderly. This conclusion is reached as follows: the poverty rate based on market income is 93 percent for female-headed elderly households in Sweden and 82 percent for all elderly households; after taxes and transfers, the corresponding poverty rates are 17 and 8 percent, respectively. Thus, the total effect of the system is taken to be that poverty rates are reduced by more 70 percentage points.

It is simply not true, however, that in the absence of public pensions and other transfers, 93 percent of old women in Sweden would be poor. The pension system in Sweden is big, universal, and mandatory, and, most important, people apparently trust that the pensions will be paid. Therefore, they adjust their behavior accordingly: the public system crowds out the provision of market sources of income.

To evaluate the welfare state's effect correctly, however, we should compare its outcome with the outcome that would arise in its absence. …

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