Income redistribution through taxes and transfers across OECD countries: A focus on the bottom 40 per cent

By Orsetta Causa, Senior Economist, OECD Economics department

Tax and transfer systems are fundamental pillars of an inclusive growth policy agenda that aims at sharing the benefits of growth more equally and securing decent living standards for those in most need.  A new OECD report by Causa and Hermansen (2017) (“Income redistribution through taxes and transfers across OECD countries”) documents that redistribution through taxes and transfers has tended to decline across OECD countries since the mid-1990s. By and large, the decline in overall redistribution across OECD countries over the last decades has been primarily driven by a decline in redistribution by cash transfers. This is not surprising insofar as cash transfers account for the bulk of redistribution.

While the analysis cannot disentangle between policy and non-policy drivers of such decline in redistribution, this picture raises the concern that welfare systems are becoming less effective at ensuring income adequacy among vulnerable households. This question can be addressed by focusing on developments in market (or pre-tax and transfer) income and redistribution among households in “the bottom 40%” of the distribution. In order to isolate the effect of changes in population structure within that group, the composition of households is adjusted according to the working status of adults and the presence of children, two key parameters affecting the “need” for redistribution. This delivers the following insights, focusing on developments over the last two decades:

  • Income support provided by social transfers to bottom 40% workless households has declined in the majority of countries for which data are available (Figure 1). Given the overwhelming weight of transfers relative to market income among that group, their disposable income declined markedly relative to median income. In the majority of countries for which data are available, cash transfers have become increasingly ineffective at preventing workless households from falling into relative poverty, especially in the presence of children.

Iineq1

  • By contrast with workless households, income support provided by taxes and transfers to bottom 40% working households has increased in the majority of countries for which data are available (Figure 2). The increase in net transfer support was largely driven by declines in income taxes and social security contributions that tended to mitigate widespread declines in market incomes.

Iineq2

The decline in redistribution may to some extent reflect the effects of tax and transfer reforms to make work pay for individuals with low earnings potential and weak labour market attachment. Concluding from this that such reforms were inappropriate would fail to consider redistribution policies as part of broader policy packages to make growth more inclusive. For example well-designed policy packages should combine tax and transfer policies to make work pay and boost jobs with policies to improve employability, skill adaptability and wage prospects. In other words, to raise job quality for less-skilled and at-risk individuals such as disadvantaged youth and immigrants, but also for older workers facing displacement in declining sectors. The policy implication is that tax and transfer reforms should be designed within an array of complementary policy instruments to address equity and efficiency objectives, taking into account country-specific context, constraints and social preferences.

References

Causa, O. and M. Hermansen (2017), “Income redistribution through taxes and transfers across OECD countries”, OECD Economics Department Working Papers, No. 1453, OECD Publishing, Paris, http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/bc7569c6-en.




Income redistribution through taxes and transfers across OECD countries

By Orsetta Causa and Mikkel Hermansen, OECD Economics department

Many OECD countries have been facing a prolonged period of low growth and stagnating income of the poorest. This challenges governments’ fiscal redistribution, all the more so in a context where new forms of work are calling into question the effectiveness of traditional social safety nets and population ageing is putting pressure on public finances. Yet, the system of taxes and transfers  that underpins social protection  is a fundamental pillar of an inclusive growth policy agenda that aims at sharing the benefits of growth more equally. A new OECD report by Causa and Hermansen (2017) (“Income redistribution through taxes and transfers across OECD countries”) takes stock of the extent to which tax and transfer systems mitigate market income inequality today, and how this has changed over a period of rising globalisation and rapid technological change.

Redistribution through taxes and transfers has tended to decline across OECD countries since the mid-1990s

Since the mid-1990s, the redistributive effect of taxes and transfers has declined in the majority of OECD countries for which data are available (Figure 1, Panel A). The trend towards less redistribution was most pronounced over the pre-crisis period, and was temporarily reversed during the first phase of the crisis, reflecting the cushioning impact of automatic stabilisers and fiscal discretionary measures. The decline in redistribution was particularly pronounced in some Nordic countries, which are among the most egalitarian OECD countries. Admittedly, the extent of the decline observed in these countries was amplified by high levels of redistribution prevailing in the mid-1990s due to high unemployment. The steadily improving labour market outlook during the subsequent decade reduced the need for redistribution. The inequality-reducing effect of redistribution also declined among the least egalitarian of OECD countries, especially Israel, but also Australia and Canada. Trends in redistribution were more heterogeneous over the most recent decade, with increases in around half of OECD countries, in particular those hardest hit by the crisis (Figure 1, Panel B).

Orsetta1

The decline in redistribution was largely driven by insurance transfers to working-age households

By and large, the decline in redistribution across OECD countries has been primarily driven by a decline in redistribution by cash transfers, which is not surprising insofar as cash transfers account for the bulk of redistribution. Personal income taxes also contributed but played a less important and more heterogeneous role across countries (Figure 2, Panel A). In turn, the decline in transfer redistribution was largely driven by insurance transfers (e.g. unemployment insurance, work-related sickness and disability benefits). This was partly mitigated by more redistributive assistance transfers (e.g. minimum income transfers, means- or income-tested social safety net) in some countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom (Figure 2, Panel B). Assistance transfers are in many OECD countries less redistributive than insurance transfers, for instance due to low take-up but also due to relatively low benefit amounts, so that their size is generally smaller than insurance transfers.

Orsetta2

Policy implications

One finding highlighted  in Causa and Hermansen (2017) is a fairly widespread shift in transfer policy from out-of-work to in-work support, at least partly driven by reforms to make work pay, especially for workers with weak labour market attachment. While this is likely to have mitigated market income inequalities by spurring employment growth, it could have contributed to the decline in redistribution. This should not lead to the conclusion that countries have no choice but to trade more efficiency for less equity. The reason is that redistribution policies should be considered as part of broader policy packages to make growth more inclusive. For example, well-designed inclusive growth packages should combine tax and transfer policies to make work pay and boost jobs with policies to improve employability, skill adaptability and wage prospects. To the extent that such packages have not been broadly deployed by OECD countries, potentially reflecting budgetary constraints, reductions in market income inequality induced by such reforms have not been sufficient to prevent disposable income inequality from rising.

References

Causa, O. and M. Hermansen (2017), “Income redistribution through taxes and transfers across OECD countries”, OECD Economics Department Working Papers, No. 1453, OECD Publishing, Paris, http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/bc7569c6-en.