Europe faces a significant job challenge. At an average of 11 percent, unemployment remains stubbornly high while labor force participation, at 58 percent of the working age population, lags behind most other regions of the world. This means, that only every second person in working age currently has a paying job across the region. Addressing the job challenge requires multifaceted labor market policies. We argue however that reducing the tax burden on labor, which remains high across the region, holds the promise of improving labor market outcomes. Such tax cuts could especially target low-wage workers, which often face the highest marginal tax rates and very elastic labor demand and are therefore most likely to be priced out of the formal labor market.
Europe and Central Asia
Are we effective in presenting education data to help tackle the real issues that developing countries are facing? The education community continues to be puzzled by two realities: (1) crucial data is often not available and (2) available data is often hard to digest.
Inequality is back in the news. In his 2014 State of the Union address, U. S. President Obama lamented that, “after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better. But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled.” At the global scale, Oxfam is making the same point, noting in a recent report that the richest 85 people in the world own the same amount of wealth as the 3.5 billion bottom half of the Earth's population. Perhaps more surprising, the rich and powerful CEOs jetting to Davos earlier this year seemed to finally get it: capitalism cannot survive if income and wealth become concentrated in too few hands. Fighting inequality would therefore not only be the morally correct thing to do, it would also be smart economics. And this is what a recent Staff Discussion Note from the IMF suggests: “inequality can undermine progress in health and education, cause investment-reducing political and economic instability, and undercut the social consensus required in the face of shocks, and thus tends to reduce the pace and durability of growth.”
The role of asset bubbles as an unsustainable pillar of pre-2007 world economic growth has been widely recognized. Simultaneously, analysts worry that a secular stagnation, though momentarily offset by asset bubbles, may have been already at play in major advanced economies, leading to the ongoing sluggish and feeble recovery.
The three points made in my previous post—that services particularly fail poor people, money is not the solution, and “the solution” is not the solution—can be explained by failures of accountability in the service delivery chain. This was the cornerstone of the 2004 World Development Report, Making Services Work for Poor People. In a private market—when I buy a sandwich, for example—there is a direct or “short route” of accountability between the client (me) and the sandwich provider. I pay him directly; I know whether I got a sandwich or not; and If I don’t like the sandwich, I can go elsewhere—and the provider knows that.
Finding and keeping a job, and even participating in the labor market, is harder if you are a woman than if you are a man living in the Western Balkans. This is a conclusion I can draw from my first year as Country Director for the Western Balkans, reminding us that gender inequality persists in many forms while another International Women’s Day passes.
Only half of the working age population participates in the labor force in the Western Balkans. This is low by both European and global standards - but participation among women is even worse. This rate was only about 42% in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and a mere 18% in Kosovo in 2012 - the lowest in all of Europe and Central Asia. This participation gap persists throughout a woman’s life, contributing to low employment rates, and widens during child bearing years. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the gap between male and female employment rates has reached a whopping 44 percentage points for those aged 25 to 49 years with a young child living at home.
Failure to address these labor market inequalities is a missed opportunity for faster economic growth, poverty reduction and increased shared prosperity in a region struggling to recover from the neighborhood effects of the Eurozone crisis.
Back in 2003, when we were writing the 2004 World Development Report, Making Services Work for Poor People, we had no idea that it would spawn so much research, innovation, debate and changes in the delivery of basic services. Last week, we had a fascinating conference, in collaboration with the Overseas Development Institute, to review this work, and chart the agenda for the coming decade. Being a blogger, I wanted to speak about what WDR2004 got wrong, but some of my teammates suggested I should start by describing what we got right. So here are three ways WDR2004 changed the conversation about service delivery (what we got wrong will be the next post).
Taxing Labor versus Taxing Consumption?
Europe’s welfare systems face substantial demographic headwinds. Increasing life expectancy and the approaching retirement of “Baby Boomers” will increase public expenditures for years to come. Rightfully, much attention is focused on containing additional spending needs for pensions, health and long term care. But how is all this being paid for?
Currently, the majority of social spending, including most importantly pension benefits, in most countries in Europe and Central Asia is financed through social security contributions, which are essentially taxes on labor. This has two important implications. First, in terms of fiscal sustainability, the growth in spending is only a concern if expenditures grow faster than the corresponding revenues. Since labor taxes are the predominant source of financing for most welfare systems in both EU and transition countries, aging will not only increase spending, but simultaneously exert pressure on revenues. With the exception of countries in Central Asia and Turkey, the labor force, and hence the number of taxpayers that pay labor taxes will decline by about 20 percent on average across the region. Second, already today, labor taxes, including both personal income taxes and social security contributions account on average for about 40 percent of total gross labor costs in Europe and Central Asia (including EU member states), compared to an average of 34 percent in the OECD. This means that for every US$ 1 received in net earnings, employers on average incur a labor cost of US$ 1.67. And out of the 67 cents that are paid in labor taxes, 43 cents (or 65 percent) are directly used to finance social security benefits. By increasing the cost of labor, the high tax burden potentially harms competitiveness, job creation, and growth in countries in the region.
Giving Cash Unconditionally in Fragile States
There have been many recent press articles, a couple of potentially seminal journal papers, and some great blogs from leading economists at the World Bank on the topic of Unconditional Cash Transfers (UCTs). It remains a widely debated subject, and one with perhaps a couple of myths associated with it. For example, what is cash from UCTs used for? Do the transfers lead to permanent increases in income? Does it matter how the transfers are labelled or promoted? I am particularly interested in whether UCTs could be a useful instrument in countries with low institutional capacity, such as fragile and conflict-affected states (FCS).
Why UCTs in FCS? UCTs present a new approach to reducing poverty, stimulating growth and improving social welfare, that may be the most efficient and feasible mechanism in FCS. A recent evaluation of the World Bank’s work on FCS recognized, “where government responsiveness to citizens has been relatively weak, finding the right modality for reaching people with services is vital to avoiding further fragility and conflict”. Plus there is always the risk of desperately needed finances being “spirited away” when channeled through central governments. UCTs may present a mechanism for stimulating the provision of quality services, which are often lacking, while directly reducing poverty at the same time. As Shanta Devarajan’s blog puts it, “But when they (the poor) are given cash with which to “buy” these services, poor people can demand quality—and the provider must meet it or he won’t get paid.” We should explore more about this approach to tackling poverty: where and when it has worked, what made it work, and whether we can predict whether it will work in different contexts.
- unconditional cash transfers
- Cast Transfers
- Fragile and Conflict Afflicted States
- Social Development
- Public Sector and Governance
- South Asia
- Middle East and North Africa
- Latin America & Caribbean
- Europe and Central Asia
- East Asia and Pacific
- Syrian Arab Republic
Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic – Laura Tuck, the vice president for the World Bank’s Europe and Central Asia unit, talks about her trip to Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and important issues related to the economic growth of the region that she discussed in these Central Asian countries.