Welfare trap

Welfare trap

The welfare trap theory asserts that taxation and welfare systems can jointly contribute to keep people on social insurance. This is also known as the unemployment trap or poverty trap in the UK.

In the UK, there is a distinction between two concepts:
* the "unemployment trap" occurs when the net income difference between low-paid work and unemployment benefits is less than work related costs, discouraging movement into work;
* the "poverty trap" refers to the position when in-work income-tested benefit payments are reduced as income rises, combined with income tax and other deductions, with the effect of discouraging higher paid work whether that involves working longer hours or acquiring skills.

Mechanism and examples

An example of how the welfare trap works is as follows: A person on welfare finds a part time job that will pay him/her a minimum wage of five dollars per hour, eight hours per week. The forty dollars he/she earns per week will be deducted from their welfare payments leaving him/her with no net gain. Frequently, in fact, they will recover a net loss as the government will also levy a tax on their forty dollars. There may also be extra child-care and commuting costs, now that he/she is no longer able to remain at home all day. Therefore, despite performing eight hours of work productive to society (and, theoretically, themselves) they are now worse off than before they acquired employment.

The principles underlying the welfare trap ultimately stem from the way people make decisions in light of personal valuation of their time and effort. Consider this next example: a man is receiving welfare from the government to the tune of 15,000 dollars per year. He does, essentially, nothing to earn that money and spends his days doing whatever he pleases (within the limits of what he can afford, given the money he is receiving).

Eventually, he is offered a job paying 25,000 dollars per year. Should he take the job?

At first, the answer might seem to be a simple "yes", due to the obvious material gains: an extra 10,000 dollars, which represents an increase of 66% in his revenue. However, he would have to pay taxes from his new salary, which might reduce his new income from 25,000 dollars to, say, 22,000, and therefore reduce his net gain accordingly from 10,000 to 7,000 dollars. This is still an improvement in his material situation, but it comes at the expense of a lot more work: the man would likely have to work 40 hours per week at his new job, at an effective wage increase of $3.50 per hour, which is below minimum wage. Also, he will incur additional ancillary costs such as time and money spent commuting, and increased stress. As such, he will weigh the benefits of the extra money against the "cost" he incurs from working. If he decides, as he likely will given the above circumstances, that the extra money is not worth the effort, he has been "caught" in the welfare trap.

A more extreme example arises if he is offered a job paying 15,000 dollars a year. If this causes him to no longer qualify for welfare, then after taxes, he will almost certainly have less take-home income than before. He will have a strong economic incentive to refuse the job. This is certainly a welfare trap.

In short, the welfare trap demonstrates the way that social welfare systems can create a perverse incentive. Although such systems are intended to provide a buffer for unemployed citizens and thereby raise the standard of living, they may create a situation whereby the welfare recipient has an incentive to avoid raising his own productivity because his net income gain after benefits and taxes is not enough to compensate for the effort he must expend at work.

Proposed solutions

The existence of a welfare trap depends on the difference between welfare income and the typical income one would receive from a low-paying job. A welfare trap can exist when this difference is too small. Thus, the general solution to the welfare trap is to make the difference larger, either by increasing the revenue of people in low-end jobs or by reducing welfare payments (or both).

In Europe and Canada, proposed solutions typically involve lowering taxes on the poor, and/or not fully deducting small wages from welfare checks, thus allowing a person on welfare who finds a part-time minimum wage job to make a net gain. Another method is to subsidize the employer for hiring a low-wage worker.

One possible solution that has been implemented in Australia is to allow recipients of Centrelink social security benefits such as the Disability Support Pension to earn up to $128 a fortnight without welfare payments being affected. Every dollar earned over that amount reduces the amount of benefit by forty cents. This helps to create more of an incentive to work, at least on a part-time or casual basis. Centrelink also makes Employment Entry Payments of $300 available to long-term welfare recipients who have returned to full-time work.

However, in the US, Japan and Australia, other, more radical, solutions are gaining popularity. These solutions generally involve dramatically cutting welfare payments or eliminating them entirely. Opponents of these solutions argue that they might leave the very poor without protection from starvation and death, which could create a bigger problem than it solves. On the other hand, supporters rejoinder that eliminating government welfare would have no effect on private charities, religious charities, family support structures and individual donations, which, they argue, are more than capable of preventing (to the degree humanly possible) starvation and death for the destitute. Additionally, those in favor of curtailing or ending welfare argue that lowering welfare benefits from the government provides added incentive to work, or at least removes the disincentive to do so.

Some other suggested schemes to solve the problem are basic income and negative income tax, which are based on the concept of giving "everyone", whether working or not working, a constant amount of welfare payments (for most people, other than the unemployed or those on low-paying jobs, this would be essentially equivalent to a partial tax refund). Thus, the unemployed would not lose all welfare benefits at once when they find a job; rather, their benefits would decrease gradually as their job income increases. This would give them far greater incentives to find employment.


A crucial link in the chain that creates a welfare trap are the personal preferences and state of mind of people on welfare. It is a question of personal preference whether a certain amount of money is worth expending a certain amount of effort at work. Thus, critics argue that the welfare trap is more of a psychological problem than an economic one. Fact|date=May 2007 This is certainly not the case when going to work literally reduces take-home income, which it can do in some cases.

One motivation to exiting the welfare trap is simple pride. Being on welfare may be a social stigma that, sometimes, can hurt an individual's pride enough to cause him to break the cycle on his own. That is, despite a net loss in a monetary sense, it may become worthwhile in the subjective valuation sense for the individual to get a job and get off "the dole." (This is far from being a "universal" stigma.)

Conversely it has been suggested by cycle of poverty theorists that socialization and values handed down by family may have an influence on deciding not to work. Among German social workers, the informal term "welfare nobility" ("Sozialadel") is used to describe families which have not worked for several generations, value their independence from domination by employers and evolve low-cost lifestyles. The term, usually used pejoratively, implies that this rejection of menial work is akin to the value codes of the aristocracy and may be inherited in the sense of being learned in the family.

See also

*Poverty trap


Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • welfare trap — /ˈwɛlfɛə træp/ (say welfair trap) noun an economic situation in which the benefit of taking paid work and securing an income is not much more than the benefit received from social welfare entitlements, thereby tending to encourage people to… …   Australian English dictionary

  • Welfare (financial aid) — Welfare is financial assistance paid to people by governments. Some welfare is general, while specific and can only be invoked under certain circumstances, such as a scholarship. Welfare payments can be made to individuals or to companies or… …   Wikipedia

  • Trap — A trap is a device or tactic intended to harm, capture, detect, or inconvenience a human or animal intruder, or animal pest or game. Traps may be physical objects, such as cages or snares, or metaphorical concepts. Physical trapsExamples of… …   Wikipedia

  • Trap-Neuter-Return — (TNR), also known as Trap Test Vaccinate Alter Release (TTVAR) is a method of humanely trapping unaltered feral cats, spaying or neutering them, and releasing them back to the same location where they were collected. TNR is promoted by the ASPCA… …   Wikipedia

  • welfare state —    By 1950, it was unremarkable to describe Britain as a ‘welfare state’. Mostly this term referred to the new legislation to promote social welfare, but sometimes it stood for a more general view of social and political culture. References could …   Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture

  • unemployment trap — /ʌnəmˈplɔɪmənt træp/ (say unuhm ploymuhnt trap) noun → welfare trap …   Australian English dictionary

  • Animal Welfare Institute — The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) (SAPL), pushes for the passage of laws that reflect this purpose.Campaigns and GoalsIn the organization’s early years, its particular emphasis was on the needs of animals used for experimentation. AWI expanded… …   Wikipedia

  • poverty trap — The situation low income individuals or families may face when taking up paid employment or securing higher earnings, if the loss of means tested state welfare benefits and/or new income tax payments are equal to, or even exceed additional… …   Dictionary of sociology

  • The Global Trap — Die Globalisierungsfalle Der Angriff auf Demokratie und Wohlstand is a 1996 book by Hans Peter Martin and Harald Schumann that describes possible implications of current trends in globalization. It was published in English as The Global Tr in… …   Wikipedia

  • Cycle of poverty — In economics, the cycle of poverty is the set of factors or events by which poverty, once started, is likely to continue unless there is outside intervention. [1] The cycle of poverty has been defined as a phenomenon where poor families become… …   Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.