Associated Programs

Federal Budget Policy

Federal Budget Policy

The demographic shift resulting from the aging of the baby boomer generation presents a number of potential dilemmas for policymakers. Whether a shrinking working-age population can support its own dependents, in addition to retirees, has led to debates about the increasing size of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid budgets—now and in the future. Questions have been raised about whether these government programs can continue to function in the same manner, and achieve the same goals, as they do today. Will structural reform be necessary? Do we wish to provide the same, or a higher, level of support equally throughout the aging population? Should some, or all, benefits be “income tested”? What can be done today to offset the problems of the future?

In aggregate terms, fiscal debates have turned from what to do about growing federal budget surpluses to what constitutes the necessary size and composition of a stimulus package. Some economists have argued that, by creating a wider pool of funds available for investment, “fiscal responsibility” resulted in greater access to investment funds by private sector firms, which, in turn, stimulated economic growth. Others contend that the unprecedented growth of the 1990s happened in spite of budget surpluses, and that if the composition of private versus public funding had been more in balance, growth and employment would have expanded even further. These debates are related to those that surround the current demand shortfall and to calls for fiscal stimulus: if budget surpluses were the cause of economic growth, an argument can be made that fiscal stimulus should focus on investment-targeted tax cuts. If, however, surpluses were the result of economic growth, then demand-led fiscal policies, such as spending programs and tax cuts aimed broadly over the income distribution, should be the focus.

In responding to the above-listed issues, Levy Institute scholars have concentrated recent research on evaluating proposals that would alter the structure of Social Security to deal with future funding shortfalls, privatize any or all of the Social Security program, and restructure Medicaid financing to widen the availability of funding for long-term care. Other recent analyses deal with specific budgetary issues, such as tax-cut proposals and evaluation of the causes and effects of federal budget surpluses.

Research Program

Economic Policy for the 21st Century

Program Publications

  • Working Paper No. 883 | February 2017
    An Empirical Analysis of G20 Countries

    This paper analyzes the effectiveness of public expenditures on economic growth within the analytical framework of comprehensive Neo-Schumpeterian economics. Using a fixed-effects model for G20 countries, the paper investigates the links between the specific categories of public expenditures and economic growth, captured in human capital formation, defense, infrastructure development, and technological innovation. The results reveal that the impact of innovation-related spending on economic growth is much higher than that of the other macro variables. Data for the study was drawn from the International Monetary Fund’s Government Finance Statistics database, infrastructure reports for the G20 countries, and the World Development Indicators issued by the World Bank.

  • Working Paper No. 874 | September 2016
    Is There a Case for Gender-sensitive Horizontal Fiscal Equalization?

    This paper seeks to evaluate whether a gender-sensitive formula for the inter se devolution of union taxes to the states makes the process more progressive. We have used the state-specific child sex ratio (the number of females per thousand males in the age group 0–6 years) as one of the criteria for the tax devolution. The composite devolution formula as constructed provides maximum rewards to the state with the most favorable child-sex ratio, and the rewards progressively decline along with the declining sex ratio. In this formulation, the state with the most unfavorable child-sex ratio is penalized the most in terms of its share in the horizontal devolution. It is observed that the inclusion of gender criteria makes the intergovernmental fiscal transfers formula more equitable across states. This is not surprising given the monotonic decline in the sex ratio in some of the most high-income states in India.

  • Working Paper No. 872 | August 2016
    Do Fiscal Rules Impose Hard Budget Constraints?

    The primary objective of rule-based fiscal legislation at the subnational level in India is to achieve debt sustainability by placing a ceiling on borrowing and the use of borrowed resources for public capital investment by phasing out deficits in the budget revenue account. This paper examines whether the application of fiscal rules has contributed to an increase in fiscal space for public capital investment spending in major Indian states. Our analysis shows that, controlling for other factors, there is a negative relationship between fiscal rules and public capital investment spending at the state level under the rule-based fiscal regime.

  • One-Pager No. 13 | September 2011
    Research Scholar Greg Hannsgen and President Dimitri B. Papadimitriou disprove claims made by Social Security skeptics that the program is nothing more than a “Ponzi scheme.”

  • Working Paper No. 539 | July 2008
    Can the New Developments in the New Economic Consensus Be Reconciled with the Post-Keynesian View?

    The monetarist counterrevolution and the stagflation period of the 1970s were among the theoretical and practical developments that led to the rejection of fiscal policy as a useful tool for macroeconomic stabilization and full employment determination.  Recent mainstream contributions, however, have begun to reassess fiscal policy and have called for its restitution in certain cases. The goal of this paper is to delimit the role of and place for fiscal policy in the New Economic Consensus (NEC) and to compare it to that of Post-Keynesian theory, the latter arguably the most faithful approach to the original Keynesian message. The paper proposes that, while a consensus may exist on many macroeconomic issues within the mainstream, fiscal policy is not one of them. The designation of fiscal policy within the NEC is explored and contrasted with the Post-Keynesian calls for fiscal policy via Abba Lerner’s “functional finance” approach. The paper distinguishes between two approaches to functional finance—one that aims to boost aggregate demand and close the GDP gap, and one that secures full employment via direct job creation. It is argued that the mainstream has severed the Keynesian link between fiscal policy and full employment—a link that the Post-Keynesian approach promises to restore.

  • Working Paper No. 471 | August 2006

    This paper describes how stochastic population forecasts are used to inform and analyze policies related to government spending on the elderly, mainly in the context of the industrialized nations. The paper first presents methods for making probabilistic forecasts of demographic rates, mortality, fertility, and immigration, and shows how these are combined to make stochastic forecasts of population number and composition, using forecasts of the US population by way of illustration. Next, the paper discusses how demographic models and economic models can be combined into an integrated projection model of transfer systems such as social security. Finally, the paper shows how these integrated models describe various dimensions of policy-relevant risk, and discusses the nature and implications of risk in evaluating policy alternatives.

    Associated Program(s):
    Shripad Tuljapurkar

  • Working Paper No. 464 | July 2006
    Young Old-Age, Old Old-Age, and Elder Care

    Although elderly men and women share many of the same problems as they age, their lives are likely to follow different courses. Women are more likely than men to live into old old-age and are more likely to spend part of their young old-age caring for husbands or parents. By providing this unpaid care women might enter retirement earlier, rather than prolonging their working lives. Because they live longer, but are less likely than men to live with someone who will care for them, women are also more likely than men to require paid care either at home or in a nursing home. Proposals to reduce government spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid will thus have different implications for women and men. This paper evaluates changes in these programs, and describes alternative and innovative ways of providing and paying for eldercare in other countries as well as in the United States.

    Associated Program(s):
    Lois B. Shaw

  • Working Paper No. 463 | July 2006

    The choice of retirement age is the most important portfolio choice most workers will make. Drawing on the Urban Institute's Dynamic Simulation of Income model (DYNASIM3), this report examines how delaying retirement for nondisabled workers would affect individual retiree benefits, the solvency of the Social Security trust fund, and general revenues. The results suggest that delaying retirement by itself does not generate enough additional revenue to make Social Security solvent by 2045. Benefit cuts or supplementary funding sources will be necessary to achieve solvency. However, the size of the benefit cuts or tax increases could be minimized if individuals worked longer. This additional work also substantially increases worker's retirement well-being. Lower-income workers, to the extent they can work longer, have the most to gain from their additional labor. Policy changes that encourage work at older ages will substantially improve both economic and personal well-being in the future

    Associated Program(s):
    Barbara A. Butrica Karen E. Smith C. Eugene Steuerle

  • Working Paper No. 461 | July 2006

    Government spending on the elderly is projected to increase rapidly as the American population becomes older. As a result, many policymakers and budget analysts are concerned about the continued viability of entitlement programs such as Social Security. The Social Security trustees’ economic growth projections receive considerable attention because many people believe that higher growth would significantly improve the program’s actuarial balance (that is, reduce its actuarial deficit). This belief is validated by Social Security trustees’ calculations that show larger 75-year actuarial balances under faster assumed real wage growth rates. Since 2003 the trustees have reported the program’s actuarial balance measured in perpetuity. But they do not provide sensitivity analysis that examines the impact of various assumptions on the infinite-term actuarial balance.

    This paper shows analytically that faster wage growth may reduce Social Security’s infinite-term actuarial balance if the ratio of workers to retirees continues to decline rapidly beyond the 75th year. This result holds even if the decline in that ratio ceases after just two decades beyond the 75th year. The paper reports stylized calculations of the impact of real wage growth and demographic change–including time-varying rates of change based on official projections for the US economy–on Social Security’s actuarial balance in a multi-period setting. Finally, the Social Security and Accounts Simulator (SSASIM) actuarial model of Social Security financing is used to estimate the degree to which increased wage growth could negatively affect the system’s infinite-term actuarial balance.

    These results raise questions about the conventional wisdom that holds that improved wage growth would affect Social Security’s financing, and how a widely used measure of Social Security’s financing captures those effects.

    Associated Program(s):
    Jagadeesh Gokhale