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The Atlanta Fed's macroblog provides commentary and analysis on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, inflation, labor economics, and financial issues.

Authors for macroblog are Dave Altig, John Robertson, and other Atlanta Fed economists and researchers.

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March 22, 2019

A Different Type of Tax Reform

Two interesting, and important, documents crossed our desk last week. The first was the 2019 edition of the Economic Report of the President. What particularly grabbed our attention was the following statement from Chapter 3:

Fundamentally, when people opt to neither work nor look for work it is an indication that the after-tax income they expect to receive in the workforce is below their "reservation wage"—that is, the minimum value they give to time spent on activities outside the formal labor market.

That does not strike us as a controversial proposition, which makes the second of last week's documents—actually a set of documents from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—especially interesting.

In that series of documents, HHS's Nina Chien and Suzanne Macartney point out a couple of things that are particularly important when thinking about the effect of tax rates on after-tax income and the incentive to work. The first, which is generally appreciated, is that the tax rates that matter with respect to incentives to work are marginal tax rates—the amount that is ceded to the government on the next $1 of income received. The second, and less often explicitly recognized, is that the amount ceded to the government includes not only payments to the government (in the form of, for example, income taxes) but also losses in benefits received from the government (in the form of, for example, Medicaid or child care assistance payments).

The fact that effective marginal tax rates are all about the sum of explicit tax payments to the government and lost transfer payments from the government applies to us all. But it is especially true for those at the lower end of the income distribution. These are the folks (of working age, anyway) who disproportionately receive means-tested benefit payments. For low-wage workers, or individuals contemplating entering the workforce into low-wage jobs, the reduction of public support payments is by far the most significant factor in effective marginal tax rates and the consequent incentive to work and acquire skills.

The implication of losing benefits for an individual's effective marginal tax rate can be eye-popping. From Chien and Macartney (Brief #2 in the series):

Among households with children just above poverty, the median marginal tax rate is high (51 percent); rates remain high (never dipping below 45 percent) as incomes approach 200 percent of poverty.

Our own work confirms the essence of this message. Consider a representative set of households, with household heads aged 30–39, living in Florida. (Because both state and local taxes and certain transfer programs vary by state, geography matters.) Now think of calculating the wealth for each household—wealth being the sum of their lifetime earnings from working and the value of their assets net of liabilities—and grouping the households into wealth quintiles. (In other words, the first quintile would the 20 percent of households with the lowest wealth, the fifth quintile would be the 20 percent of households with the highest wealth.)

What follows are the median effective marginal tax rates that we calculate from this experiment:

Wealth percentile

Median Effective Marginal Tax Rate

Lowest quintile

44%

Second quintile

43%

Third quintile

32%

Fourth quintile

33%

Highest quintile

35%

Note: The methodology used in these calculations is described here and here.
Source: 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances, the Fiscal Analyzer

Consistent with Chien and Macartney, the median effective marginal tax rates for the least wealthy are quite high. Perhaps more troubling, underlying this pattern of effective tax rates is one especially daunting challenge. The source of the relatively high effective rates for low-wealth individuals is the phase-out of transfer payments, some of which are so abrupt that they are referred to as benefits, or fiscal, cliffs. Because these payments differ widely across family structure, income levels within a quintile, and state law, the marginal tax rates faced by individuals in the lower quintiles are very disparate.

Note: The methodology used in these calculations is described here and here.
Source: 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances, the Fiscal Analyzer

The upshot of all of this is that "tax reform" aimed at reducing the disincentives to work at the lower end of the income scale is not straightforward. Without such reform, however, it is difficult to imagine a fully successful approach to (in the words of the Economic Report) "[increasing] the after-tax return to formal work, thereby increasing work incentives for potential entrants into the labor market."

 

 

January 18, 2018

How Low Is the Unemployment Rate, Really?

In 2017, the unemployment rate averaged 4.4 percent. That's quite low on a historical basis. In fact, it's the lowest level since 2000, when unemployment averaged 4.0 percent. But does that mean that the labor market is only 0.4 percentage points away from being as strong as it was in 2000? Probably not. Let's talk about why.

As observed by economist George Perry in 1970, although movement in the aggregate unemployment rate is mostly the result of changes in unemployment rates within demographic groups, demographic shifts can also change the overall unemployment rate even if unemployment within demographic groups has not changed. Adjusting for demographic changes makes for a better apples-to-apples comparison of unemployment today with past rates.

Three large demographic shifts underway since the early 2000s are the rise in the average age and educational attainment of the labor force, and the decline in the share who are white and non-Hispanic. These changes are potentially important because older workers and those with more education have lower rates of unemployment across age and education groups respectively, and white non-Hispanics tend to have lower rates of unemployment than other ethnicities.

The following chart shows the results of a demographic adjustment that jointly controls for year-to-year changes in two sex, three education, four race/ethnicity, and six age labor force groups, (see here for more details). Relative to the year 2000, the unemployment rate in 2017 is about 0.6 percentage points lower than it would have been otherwise simply because the demographic composition of the labor force has changed (depicted by the blue line in the chart).

In other words, even though the 2017 unemployment rate is only 0.4 percentage points higher than in 2000, the demographically adjusted unemployment rate (the green line in the chart) is 1.0 percentage points higher. In terms of unemployment, after adjusting for changes in the composition of the labor force, we are not as close to the 2000 level as you might have thought.

The demographic discrepancy is even larger for the broader U6 measure of unemployment, which includes marginally attached and involuntarily part-time workers. The 2017 demographically adjusted U6 rate is 2.5 percentage points higher than in 2000, whereas the unadjusted U6 rate is only 1.5 percentage points higher. That is, on a demographically adjusted basis, the economy had an even larger share of marginally attached and involuntarily part-time workers in 2017 than in 2000.

The point here is that when comparing unemployment rates over long periods, it's advisable to use a measure that is reasonably insulated from demographic changes. However, you should also keep in mind that demographics are only one of several factors that can cause fluctuation. Changes in labor market and social policies, the mix of industries, as well as changes in the technology of how people find work can also result in changes to how labor markets function. This is one reason why estimates of the so-called natural rate of unemployment are quite uncertain and subject to revision. For example, participants at the December 2012 Federal Open Market Committee meeting had estimates for the unemployment rate that would prevail over the longer run ranging from 5.2 to 6.0 percent. At the December 2017 meeting, the range of estimates was almost a whole percentage point lower at 4.3 to 5.0 percent.

November 15, 2017

Labor Supply Constraints and Health Problems in Rural America

A recent research study by Alison Weingarden at the Federal Reserve's Board of Governors found that wages for relatively low-skilled workers in nonmetropolitan areas of the country have been growing more rapidly than those in metropolitan areas. In a talk yesterday in Montgomery, Alabama, Atlanta Fed President Raphael Bostic provided some evidence that differences in labor supply resulting from disability and illness may be behind this shrinking urban wage premium.

For prime-age workers (those between 25 and 54 years old), the dynamics of labor force participation (LFP) differ widely between metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas. (These data define a metropolitan statistical area, or MSA). The LFP rate in MSAs declined by about 1.1 percentage points between 2007 and 2017 versus a 3.3 percentage point decline in non-MSA areas.

The disparity is also evident within education groups. For those without a college degree, the MSA LFP rate is down 2.6 percentage points, versus 5.0 percentage points in non-MSAs. For those with a college degree, the MSA LFP rate is down 0.7 percentage points, versus a decline of 2.5 percentage points for college graduates in non-MSAs. Moreover, although LFP rates in MSAs have shown signs of recovery in the last couple of years, this is not happening in non-MSAs.

A recent macroblog post by my colleague Ellyn Terry and the Atlanta Fed's updated Labor Force Dynamics web page have shown that the decline in prime-age LFP is partly a story of nonparticipation resulting from a rise in health and disability problems that limit the ability to work. This rise is occurring even as the population is gradually becoming more educated. (Better health outcomes generally accompany increased educational attainment.)

The following chart explores the role of disability/illness in explaining the relatively larger decline in non-MSA LFP. It breaks the cumulative change in the LFP rates since 2007 into the part attributable to demographic trends and the part attributable to behavioral or cyclical changes within demographic groups.

The demographic changes—and especially the increased share of the population with a college degree—has put mild upward pressure on the prime-age LFP rate for both the MSA and non-MSA population. Controlling for the contribution from these demographic trends, increased nonparticipation because of poor health and disability pulled down the LFP rate in MSAs by 0.8 percentage points and lowered the rate in non-MSAs by 2.0 percentage points over the past decade. For those without a college degree, disability/illness accounted for about 1.2 percentage points of the 2.6 percentage point decline in the MSA participation rate, and it accounted for 2.6 percentage points of the 5.0 percentage point decline in the non-MSA participation rate.

Taken together with evidence from business surveys and anecdotal reports about hiring difficulties, it appears that the non-MSA labor market is relatively tight. The greater inward shift of the rural supply of labor is showing through to wage costs, and especially for rural jobs that require less education.

Although the move to higher wages is welcome news for those with a job, it also raises troubling questions about why labor force nonparticipation because of disability and illness has increased so much in the first place—especially among those with less education living in nonmetropolitan areas of the country.

It is clear that the health problems for rural communities have been intensifying. Several interrelated factors have likely contributed to this worsening trend, including poverty, deeply rooted cultural and social norms, and the characteristics of rural jobs, as well as geographic barriers and shortages of healthcare providers that have limited access to care. This complex set of circumstances suggests that finding effective solutions could prove difficult.

May 5, 2017

Slide into the Economic Driver's Seat with the Labor Market Sliders

The Atlanta Fed has just launched the Labor Market Sliders, a tool to help explore simple "what if" questions using actual data on employment, the unemployment rate, labor force participation, gross domestic product (GDP) growth, and labor productivity (GDP per worker).

We modeled the Labor Market Sliders after the popular Atlanta Fed Jobs Calculator. In particular, the sliders take the rate of labor productivity growth and the rate of labor force participation as given (not a function of GDP or employment growth) and then asks questions about GDP growth and labor market outcomes. Like the Jobs Calculator, the sliders require that things add up, a very useful feature for all those backyard economic prognosticators (we know you're out there).

Let's look at an example of using the sliders. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that the labor force participation rate (LFPR) will maintain roughly its current level of 62.9 percent during the next couple of years, as the downward pressure of retiring baby boomers and the upward pressure from robust hiring hold the rate stable. The CBO also projects that labor productivity growth will gradually increase to almost 1 percent over roughly the same period.

Suppose we want to know what GDP growth would be over the next couple of years (other things equal) if labor productivity, which has been sluggish lately, returned to 1 percent, as projected by the CBO. By moving the Labor Productivity slider in the tool to 1 percent and the Months slider to 24, you will see how productivity alone affects GDP growth: it increases to about 2 percent (see the image below). In this experiment, the unemployment rate, average job growth, and LFPR are constrained to current levels.

However, there's more than one way to achieve GDP growth of 2 percent over the next two years. Let's take a look.

Hit the reset button, and productivity, GDP growth, and months revert to their starting values. Then move the Months slider to 24 and the GDP Growth slider to 2 percent. You then see that—at current levels of labor force participation and labor productivity growth—achieving 2 percent GDP growth over the next two years would require the economy to create about 200,000 jobs per months (see the image below), which would push the unemployment rate down to 3.1 percent (a rate not seen since the early 1950s).

Hit the reset button again. Achieving 2 percent GDP growth over the next two years is also realistic with a higher LFPR, some other things equal. First, move the Months slider to 24, then move the Labor Force Participation Rate slider to 63.7 percent. The higher LFPR is consistent with about 2 percent growth in GDP and roughly 200,000 additional jobs added each month (see the image below). (This scenario constrains the unemployment rate and labor productivity growth rate to their current levels.) Of course, we haven't seen the LFPR at 63.7 percent since 2012, but that's another discussion.

What if we wanted something a bit more ambitious, such as averaging 3 percent GDP growth over the next couple of years? Hit the reset button again, and try this scenario. Keep Labor Force Participation Rate at its current level (consistent with the CBO's projection), set Labor Productivity growth to 1 percent (also using the CBO projection as a guide), move the Months slider to 24, and the GDP Growth slider to 3 percent. The Labor Market Sliders allow us to see that the economy would need to add an average of about 240,000 jobs each month for those two years. This scenario, the tight-labor-market method of achieving 3 percent GDP growth, would bring the unemployment rate down to 2.6 percent.

However, suppose the United States were somehow able to recapture productivity growth of around 2 percent, which we experienced in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In that case, 3 percent GDP could be achieved at the current employment growth and unemployment rate.

I encourage you to play around and devise your own "what if" scenarios—and use the Labor Market Sliders to make sure they add up.