Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Will the elderly poor fare better under pensions means tests?

I ended my last post suggesting that it is absurd to provide pensions that are not subject to means tests because this involves taxing people of working age more heavily in order to add unnecessarily to the incomes of wealthy retirees. This raised the question of whether the elderly poor are likely to fare better in the context of the looming pensions crisis in OECD countries under means tested pensions or universal benefits.

This question is most relevant in countries that have not already adopted some form of pay-as-you-go universal aged pensions. Path dependency is involved. Once a country goes down the universal pensions path there are substantial political difficulties in back-tracking because this system encourages each generation of retirees to expect rewards for the taxes they have paid to support the preceding generations of retirees.

I expect that the political economy of how the elderly poor are likely to fare under alternative systems has been researched previously, but I haven’t yet found any papers that are directly relevant. So I will attempt to sketch out some preliminary ideas, based heavily on Australian experience.

One factor that will influence how the elderly poor fare under alternative pension arrangements will be their own political power as a group. This seems to vary greatly between countries depending on such factors as their use of voting rights. The presence or absence of means-testing could make an additional difference to the political power of this group since it identifies pensioners as a particular group of elderly people who have a common interest in lobbying for higher pensions. In that respect, means testing causes the interests of the elderly poor to differ from those of other elderly people.
Growing Public: Volume 1, The Story: Social Spending and Economic Growth since the Eighteenth Century
Pension levels of the elderly poor are also likely to be influenced by the way the political objectives of other elderly people (and of middle-aged people who are planning for retirement) evolve under different systems. Peter Lindert’s analysis of the political economy of the public pension crisis seems to provide a good starting point to consider this. He summarises as follows:

‘At first, up to the 1980s, the rise of the elderly population gave the elderly more political clout in the industrialized OECD countries. The rise in their political strength was one reason why the relative generosity of pensions rose and budgets switched from fully funded pension systems to pay-as-you-go systems, giving one lucky generation higher pensions paid for in part by the younger generation. By the 1980s, the pressure on government budgets had become acute.

From that point on, the further rise in the elderly share of population began to undermine their political strength. True, pension budgets are not declining and are projected to rise a bit more as a share of GDP. Yet, the level of pension support per elderly person is destined to go on dropping as a percentage of the average income of the whole population’ (‘Growing Public’, Vol. 1: 208).

As the number of retirees rises relative to numbers of people in the workforce, their interests are increasingly aligned with those of the community at large in maintaining incentives for the goose to continue laying golden eggs. If excessive demands by retirees result in higher tax rates the adverse consequences for economic growth will be reflected back in their future pension levels.

The demographic transition stemming from lower birth rates and increased longevity is far more advanced in some countries (e.g. Sweden) than in others (e.g. Australia). Signs that the increase in the elderly share of the population may be beginning to undermine their political strength are only now beginning to appear in Australia, with a foreshadowed increase in the age of eligibility for pensions.

Australian experience suggests that when the aging middle classes have political clout they can exercise it to look after their own interests despite means tests for aged pensions. The relaxation of means tests, combined with tax concessions to encourage investment in private superannuation, has resulted in total government support for retirees being remarkably similar across a wide range of income levels (shown here). This suggests that total government support for retirees would be much the same under a flat rate universal system without incentives for private superannuation. Complicating matters further, however, the government has allowed people to access tax-privileged superannuation funds in lump sums prior to pension age. This has provided an added incentive for people to retire early, splurging lump sums and living off accumulated wealth until they become eligible for the aged pension.

As the increase in proportion of elderly people in the population in Australia reduces the per voter political power of this group, I would expect the per voter political power of the elderly poor to diminish to a smaller extent than that of the much larger group who hope to benefit from the private superannuation tax and pension means test rorts. I expect incentives for early retirement implicit in the superannuation arrangements will be an early casualty as attempts are made to contain government spending on retirees. If a choice has to be made at some time in the future between, say, maintaining the current level of the aged pension in real terms and maintaining superannuation tax concessions, I expect that maintaining the aged pension levels would be likely to win the political debate. Similarly, given a decline in grey power on a per voter basis I doubt whether superannuation tax concession would win the political debate if a choice has to be made at some time in the future between maintaining these tax concessions and an overall lowering in income tax rates to promote economic growth.

I suspect that the elderly poor would be less able to protect their interests under a universal pension because the support arrangements would not enable them to distinguish themselves as a group whose economic interests differ from those of other elderly people.


Lorraine said...

Again, my cup runneth over; way over. Comment posted here.

Winton Bates said...

Thanks Lorraine. You make some good points. I will respond on your blog soon.

Lorraine said...

Paul Krugman weighs in on cat food commission's proposal to means test Social Security benefits. Steve of Austin comments:

On SS: this is also why means testing is a bad idea. I recall that the old welfare system had $2 (maybe $3) of administration and enforcement for every dollar spent. The current approach works just fine and does not need fixin'.