There is a trade-off between two major objectives of a tax-benefit system: equity and efficiency. The tax-benefit systems that redistribute a lot of income tend to generate disincentives to work. The tax-benefit systems that create good incentives to work and earn, are less effective in mitigating poverty, social exclusion and deprivation. In this brief we argue that, when contrasted to other EU countries, the Latvian tax-benefit system is less effective in achieving either of the objectives.
There is a fundamental trade-off between the two principal objectives of a tax-benefit system – income redistribution and efficiency. On the one hand, income redistribution is desirable as it helps to mitigate socially undesirable market outcomes such as poverty and deprivation. On the other hand, more income redistribution is often associated with higher distortions to labour supply and work effort.
There is no universal prescription as to how much a government should redistribute. The answer to this question depends, among other factors, on the relative value that society (government) assigns to the welfare of different population groups, and on the individuals’ labour supply elasticity.
However, a given degree of income redistribution can be achieved at a different cost of efficiency. In this brief, we analyse the degree of income redistribution generated by the tax-benefit system and work incentives in Latvia in the context of other EU countries. In our analysis, we use the European microsimulation tax-benefit model EUROMOD (Sutherland and Figari, 2013) version G2.0, EU-SILC data, and the analysis framework developed by Jara and Tumino (2013).
Income Redistribution in the EU
EU countries differ substantially in terms of inequality of original income and in terms of the degree of redistribution generated by the tax-benefit system (see Figure 1, data on 2007 and 2013). The Gini coefficient of equivalised household original income (which consists of income from employment and self-employment, property income, private pensions, private transfers and other relatively minor components) ranges from around 0.4 (Cyprus, Netherlands) to almost 0.55 (Romania in 2007, Ireland in 2013).
Inequality of original income in Latvia in 2007 was at the EU average level (Gini coefficient of 0.47), but the degree of income redistribution generated by direct taxes, benefits and pensions was the lowest in the EU. As a result, the inequality of disposable income in Latvia in 2007 was the highest in the EU (Gini coefficient of 0.37). Part of the answer as to why the degree of income redistribution in Latvia is so low is a relatively small contribution of pensions to redistribution – it is almost half of that observed in the EU on average, despite the fact that the share of public pension recipients in the total Latvian population in 2007 was above the EU average. Another important factor was the very minor role of means-tested benefits: in the EU on average, means-tested benefits generate a reduction in Gini coefficient by about 0.02, while in Latvia the corresponding figure is just one tenth of this.
Figure 1. Gini coefficients of original equivalised household income and degree of redistribution generated by tax-benefit systems in the EU in 2007 and 2013
Source: EUROMOD statistics, authors’ calculations.
In the course of the crisis and the following recovery, the degree of redistribution in Latvia increased (see lower panel of Figure 1). An important factor behind the increase was growing number of pension recipients and an increase in the average size of pensions (both in absolute terms and relative to employment income). The increase in the number of pension recipients was not a result of changes in eligibility criteria, but was due to population ageing and the fact that more people applied for other types of pensions. The growth in the average size of pension was due to generous indexation of pensions in 2008 and compositional changes, as pensions of new pensioners until 2012 were larger than the average pension. Another reason for a growing degree of redistribution was an increase in the size and the number of recipients of means-tested benefits (mainly Guaranteed Minimum Income (GMI) benefit). This was a result of reforms in the provision of the means-tested benefits and of falling incomes from employment, which made more people eligible for the social assistance programmes. Nevertheless, despite the increase in recent years, the degree of income redistribution in Latvia remains one of the lowest in the EU.
The existence of a trade-off between income redistribution and better work incentives suggests that tax-benefit systems that ensure less income redistribution are likely to generate better work incentives. Jara and Tumino (2013) have demonstrated the existence of this trade-off in the EU countries in 2007-2010 by identifying a negative and statistically significant correlation between Gini coefficients and Marginal Effective Tax Rates (METR). The METR is a measure that is commonly used to quantify work incentives at the intensive margin. It shows what proportion of a small increase in earnings (which results from e.g. an increase in the supplied hours of work) is lost as a result of extra tax payments or foregone benefits that the person is no longer eligible for after the increase in earnings. The negative correlation identified in Jara and Tumino (2013) suggests that countries with less income redistribution (i.e., higher Gini coefficients) tend to have better work incentives (lower METRs).
In Latvia, the mean METR in 2013 was 32.2%, only slightly below the EU average (34.5%), and much higher than the average in Estonia (22.8%) and Lithuania (27.4%), despite a lower degree of income redistribution (EUROMOD statistics). Another feature of the Latvian tax-benefit system is that it is characterised by especially high METRs for poor individuals. Thus, in 2013, 94% of individuals who faced METRs in excess of 50% belonged to the two bottom deciles of distribution of equivalised disposable income. This is different from many other European countries, where distribution of high METRs is either more even across deciles or rising towards the top end of income distribution (Jara and Tumino (2013), data for 2007).
The main reason for high METRs faced by the poorest population groups in Latvia is the design of means-tested benefits (GMI and housing benefits), which generates 100% METRs for the recipients of these benefits. Namely, for each additional euro earned, the amount of benefit is reduced by one euro, which leaves the net income unchanged. This adversely affects employment incentives for the poorest individuals and increases the poverty risk.
Figure 2 illustrates mean METRs by deciles of equivalised disposable income in Latvia and shows the contribution of taxes, benefits and social insurance contributions (SICs) to the mean METRs. It clearly demonstrates that high METRs in the bottom deciles result mainly from the contribution of benefits, which disappears in the fourth decile. The contribution of SICs is slightly smaller in the bottom decile, which is due to the fact that the proportion of employed individuals is smaller in the bottom decile. For the same reason, and also because of basic tax allowances, the contribution of direct taxes is smaller in the bottom deciles, but then the contribution of taxes levels off, reflecting the Latvian flat tax rate.
Figure 2. The contribution of direct taxes, benefits and social insurance contributions (SIC) to METRs in Latvia by deciles of equivalised disposable income in 2013
Source: authors’ calculations using EUROMOD-LV
In their study on the incentive structure created by the tax and benefit system in Latvia, the World Bank (2013) pointed out the problem of bad work incentives generated by Latvian means-tested benefits. Our results, which are based on a population-representative database of incomes, also identify means-tested benefits as the major contributor to high METRs in the lowest deciles of the income distribution. Another concern expressed by the World Bank (2013) was that the problem of informal employment (either in the form of undeclared wages or work without a contract) can be exacerbated by high participation tax rates and METRs.
The Latvian tax-benefit system is characterized both by a relatively low degree of income redistribution and relatively weak work incentives, as measured by METRs. Recipients of means-tested benefits (GMI and housing benefits) are faced with 100% METRs, as benefits are withdrawn at the same rate as household income rises. This creates disincentives to increase labour supply for low-paid/low-skilled individuals, and hence creates a risk of poverty traps. Evidence from the literature suggests that the labour supply of low paid workers is particularly sensitive to the incentives generated by the tax-benefit system, hence reforms that would bring down METRs in the bottom deciles could yield positive results in terms of employment of low paid/low skilled workers.
A potential reform is to introduce either a gradual phasing out of the means-tested benefits, or to exclude a certain amount of employment income from the income test for the means-tested benefits. Such reforms would be targeted at the bottom end of the income distribution, help combat poverty, improve the incentive structure of the Latvian tax-benefit system, and positively affect the labour supply of low-skilled/low-paid workers.
- EUROMOD statistics on Distribution and Decomposition of Disposable Income, accessed at http://www.iser.essex.ac.uk/euromod/statistics/ using EUROMOD version no. G2.0, retrieved on October 14, 2014
- Jara, H. Xavier & Alberto Tumino (2013). “Tax-benefit systems, income distribution and work incentives in the European Union,” International Journal of Microsimulation, Interational Microsimulation Association, vol. 1(6), pages 27-62.
- Sutherland, Holly & Francesco Figari (2013). “EUROMOD: the European Union tax-benefit microsimulation model,” International Journal of Microsimulation, Interational Microsimulation Association, vol. 1(6), pages 4-26.
- World Bank (2013). “Latvia: “Who is Unemployed, Inactive or Needy? Assessing Post-Crisis Policy Options”. Analysis of the Incentive Structure Created by the Tax and Benefit System. Financial Incentives of the Tax and Benefit System in Latvia,” European Social Fund Activity “Complex support measures” No. 1DP//126.96.36.199.1./09/IPIA/NVA/001
There was no inter-regional convergence in Russia during the 1990s but the situation changed dramatically after 2000. While interregional GDP per capita gaps still persist, the differentials in incomes and wages decreased substantially. Interregional fiscal redistribution has never played a major role in Russia, so understanding interregional convergence requires an analysis of internal capital and labor mobility. The capital market in Russia’s regions is integrated in a sense that local investment does not depend on local savings. Also, the barriers to labor mobility have come down. The situation is very different from the 1990s when many poor Russian regions were in a poverty trap: potential workers wanted to leave those regions but could not afford to finance their move. After 2000 (especially later in the first decade), these barriers were no longer binding. Overall economic development, as well as the development of financial and real estate markets, allowed even the poorest Russian regions to grow out of the poverty trap. This resulted in some convergence in the Russian labor market; the interregional gaps in incomes, wages and unemployment rates are now comparable to those in Europe.
Russia’s Regions are Finally Converging
Large interregional differences have always been an important feature of Russia’s transition to a market economy. This has been explained by the pre-transition geographical allocation of population and of physical capital that was determined by non-market forces. Soviet industrialization policies often pursued political or geopolitical goals. Even when they reflected economic realities, the economic decision-making was distorted substantially by central planning, price-setting and subsidies. In addition, the allocation of production was intended to serve a different country – the Soviet Union (or even the whole Council for Mutual Economic Assistance countries) rather than Russia alone. Moreover, believing in economies of scale rather than in competition, Soviet planners created many monotowns. These towns, cities or even regions relied on a single industry. Therefore economic restructuring and inter-sectoral reallocation implied not only moving workers or capital between employers in one town, but also required moving workers or capital between cities.
Despite the need for geographical reallocation during the transition to a market economy, the differentials between Russian regions remained high (and even increased!) throughout the 1990s. However, after 2000 (especially later in the first decade) there was substantial convergence in incomes and wages (Figure 1). By 2010, this resulted in reduction of the inter-regional differences in incomes in line with European levels. In Figure 2, while inter-regional differences in Russia are still substantially above those in the US and Western Europe, they are comparable to those in the EU.Figure 1. Differences among Russian Regions in Terms of Logarithms of Real Incomes, Real Wages, Unemployment, Real GDP Per Capita
Source: Guriev and Vakulenko (2012). Note: All variables measured as population-weighted standard deviations.
Figure 2. Income Differentials in Russia, Europe and the US
Interestingly, despite income convergence, there was no convergence in GDP per capita among Russia’s regions. Inter-regional dispersions in GDP per capita remain high not only by European standards, but also by standards of less developed countries. Indeed, in Figure 3, Russia is placed in the international context using the data recently developed by Che and Spilimbergo (2012).
Che and Spilimbergo calculate interregional differences for 32 countries in a compatible way and plot them against GDP per capita (averaged out for 1995-2005, in real PPP-adjusted dollars). Their main finding is that that there is a negative correlation between interregional differences and GDP per capita.
Since Russia was not in Che and Spilimbergo’s dataset, Guriev and Vakulenko (2012) reproduced their calculations for Russia, both for the 1995-2005 average (as they do for the other countries) but also for the individual years 1995, 2000, 2005 and 2010. It turns out that while Russia was “abnormally uniform” in the early 1990s, it did experience substantial divergence in the late 1990s. There was continuing, albeit weaker, divergence even in the early 2000s – so Russia became “abnormally unequal” given its GDP level. Even though there was some convergence late in the first decade, Russia is still “abnormally unequal”. Given the fast economic growth since 2000, Russia should have become substantially “more uniform” – at least given the downward-sloping relationship between income and inter-regional inequality in Che-Spilimbergo’s data.
Source: Che and Spilimbergo (2012). Note: The trend line is calculated without Russia.
Why didn’t income convergence happen in the 1990s and only start after 2000? Why hasn’t GDP convergence taken place? Large interregional differences are consistent with reduced income, wage, and unemployment differentials if the factors of production (labor and capital) have become more mobile while the productivity differences (due to geography, political and economic institutions, and inherited differences in infrastructure) remain in place. Therefore, in order to understand income convergence, an understanding of labor and capital mobility is needed.
Interregional Labor Mobility in Russia
Andrienko and Guriev (2004) studied internal migration flows in Russia in the 1990s and showed that the lack of convergence was explained by a “poverty trap”. In general, Russians did move from poorer to richer regions. However, in Russia’s very poor regions (in about 30% of the regions hosting about 30% of Russia’s population) the potential outgoing migrants wanted, but could not afford, to leave; so for these regions, an increase in income would have resulted in higher rather than lower outmigration.
What changed since 2000? Why did barriers to mobility come down? There are multiple potential explanations: (i) economic growth simply allowed most of Russia’s regions to grow out of the poverty trap; (ii) the development of financial and real estate markets reduced the transactions costs of moving therefore reducing the importance of the poverty trap; (iii) the development of capital markets increased capital mobility; (iv) federal redistribution reduced interregional differences.
According to Guriev and Vakulenko (2012), federal redistribution played a very minor role, while the other three explanations are consistent with the data. Our analysis of capital flows is, however, limited by the lack of detailed data, but our study of panel data on net capital inflows and investment shows that, first, capital does flow to regions with higher returns to capital and with lower wages and incomes, thus contributing to convergence. Second, investment in Russia’s regions is not correlated with savings which suggests that Russia’s capital market is not regionally segmented. As our data on capital are limited to the period after 2000, we cannot compare the recent years to those during the 1990s, but at least we can argue that recently, the capital market was functioning well and was contributing to convergence.
It is striking to what extent the poverty trap and liquidity constraints used to be, but are no longer, binding for labor mobility. Figure 4 is a graphical illustration of the poverty trap. Based on a semiparametric estimation with region-to-region fixed effects it shows the relationship between income in the origin region and migration (both in logarithm). Each dot on this graph represents migration from one region to another in a given year (during 1995-2010). As discussed above, the relationship is non-monotonic. If the sending region is poor, an increase in income results in higher out-migration; for richer regions, a further increase in income results in lower migration. The peak is at log income equal to 8.7 which amounts to average income equal to exp(8.7) ≈ 6003 in 2010 rubles and 1.02 of the Russian average subsistence levels in 2010. The regions to the left of the peak are in the poverty trap while the regions to the right are in a “normal mode” where liquidity constraints are not a substantial barrier to migration.
While in the 1990s tens of regions were below this threshold (and therefore were locked in the poverty trap), by 2010 only one region was below this threshold. In this sense, overall economic growth allowed Russian regions to overcome liquidity constraints by simply growing out of the poverty trap. We ran additional tests to show that financial development also contributed to relaxing liquidity constraints.Figure 4. Income in the Origin Region and Migration
Should we be worried about high interregional differentials in GRP per capita? Not necessarily. In order to ensure inter-regional convergence in incomes and wages, convergence in GDP per capita is not required. As long as barriers to labor and capital mobility are removed, mobility (or even a threat of mobility) protects workers. Therefore, the very fact of remaining large inter-regional dispersion in GDP per capita should not serve by itself as a justification for government intervention (e.g. region-specific government investment).
As reducing barriers to mobility is important for convergence, this is exactly where policies can contribute the most. Developing financial and housing markets and improving investor protection are better policies for reducing inter-regional differences in income; these factors have already reduced income differentials among Russian regions.
We should, however, provide an important caveat. Our analysis was done at the regional level. We therefore do not address the sub-regional level and have nothing to say on the need for town-level government interventions. There may well be many cases where individual towns (e.g. so called mono-towns) are locked in poverty traps. In those cases government intervention may be justified and desirable. Our results show that poverty traps did exist in Russia in the 1990s at the regional level. These may well still exist at the town level even now. We cannot extrapolate the quantitative value of the income threshold we identified for the poverty traps from regional level to the town level but our analysis provides very clear qualitative criteria for government intervention. If the average citizen of a town would benefit from moving out but cannot finance the move (e.g. because his/her real estate is worthless), then the government can and should step in through supporting financial intermediaries that could finance the move. Therefore our analysis is fully consistent with the rationale for the government’s mono-towns restructuring program.
- Andrienko, Yuri, and Sergei Guriev (2004). “Determinants of Interregional Mobility in Russia: Evidence from Panel Data.” Economics of Transition, 12 (1), 1-27.
- Che, Natasha, and Antonio Spilimbergo (2012). “Structural reforms and regional convergence.” CEPR Discussion Paper No. 8951.
- Guriev, Sergei and Elena Vakulenko (2012). “Convergence among Russian regions.” Background paper for the World Bank’s Eurasia Growth Project.
 Russian law defines monotowns as town where at least 25% employment is in a single firm. Even now, the Russian government’s Program for the Support of Monotowns lists 335 monotowns (out of the total of 1099 Russia’s towns and cities) with the total of 25% of Russia’s urban population.  EU (19): Belgium, Czech Republic, Germany, Estonia, Ireland, Greece, Spain, France, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Austria, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Finland, Sweden, United Kingdom. For EU (19) we consider only those NUTS-2 units for which there is data for each year. Western Europe: Austria, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Greece, France, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Finland, Sweden, United Kingdom.  The graph shows the relationship between the logarithm of the real income in the sending region and the logarithm in migration controlling for income in the receiving region, unemployment and public goods in both sending and receiving, year dummies and other factors influencing migration. Moscow and Saint Petersburg are excluded.