Are housing benefit an effective way to redistribute income? Evidence from a natural experiment in France
In this paper, I show that in-kind benefit such as a housing benefit program may have a significant impact on the price of the subsidized good. I use a French housing benefit reform to evaluate the impact of the subsidy on the level of rents. The results indicate that one additional euro of housing benefit leads to an increase of 78 cents in the rent paid by new benefit claimants, leaving only 22 cents available to reduce their net rent and increase their consumption. This large impact of housing benefit on rents appears to be the result of a very low housing supply elasticity. I show that the housing benefit reform induced additional demand, not only from low income households but also from students who used the benefit to become independent. Unfortunately, this increase in demand was unmatched by increasing housing supply in the short and middle term. The only possible effect of the reform is a small increase in housing quality. These results raise questions about the use of such in-kind transfers when the supply of the subsidized good is almost inelastic. It is therefore very important to estimate the incidence of the subsidy when assessing the efficiency of such welfare programs.
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