Social income transfers and poverty alleviation in OECD countries
Poverty alleviation is an important policy objective in developed welfare states. This paper analyzes the effect of social transfer policies on poverty. A vast literature claims that high social effort goes along with low poverty levels across countries. This paper systematically analyzes this claim. We employ several social expenditure ratios (as a proxy for social effort) and correct for the impact of the tax system and for private social arrangements, using OECD methodology. Also, we control for demographic and macro-economic differences across countries. We performed several tests with the most recent data (LIS, OECD, and SOCX) for the period 1985-2005. Our results are less clear-cut than earlier findings. We still find quite a strong negative relationship between the level of public social expenditure and poverty among 28 OECD countries. However, for non-EU15 countries this relationship is stronger than for the EU15. The results alter considerably if private social expenditures are included as well. For non-EU15 countries in our sample, we do not find evidence for a negative correlation between the level of total social spending and the incidence of poverty. In contrast, for the group of EU15 countries private social arrangements do matter as far as poverty alleviation is concerned. Demographic and macro-economic (control) variables are important as well. We developed and employed multiple linear regression models to control for these complex interrelationships. Our results point at one direction: gross social spending is the driving force as far as differences in poverty levels across countries are concerned, although the ageing of the population and unemployment rates have some explanatory power, both for non-EU15 countries and for EU15 countries. Our analyses captures another effect as well. It is essential to control for the impact of taxes on the social expenditure ratios used. By doing so, the linkage between social effort and poverty levels across countries becomes insignificant. In view of the fact that with these corrections on expenditure statistics, we have a much better – although still not perfect - measure of what governments really devote to social spending, the familiar claim that higher social expenditure goes along with lower poverty levels does not hold across the 28 examined countries examined. We believe that our comparison of the impact of several social expenditure ratios on poverty levels has emphasized that taking into account both the public/private-mix and the impact of the tax system on social expenditure ratios really matters for comparative welfare state research and for policy makers who want to reduce poverty.
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