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Social Transfers and Spatial Distortions

Institute Working Paper 54 | Published November 17, 2021

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Mark Colas Scholar
Robert McDonough University of Oregon
Social Transfers and Spatial Distortions


US social transfer programs vary substantially across states, incentivizing households to locate in states with more generous transfer programs. Further, transfer formulas often decrease in income, therefore rewarding low-income households for living in low-paying cities. We quantify these distortions by combining a spatial equilibrium model with a detailed model of transfer programs in the US. The current system leads to locational inefficiency of 4.38% of total transfer spending. A reform that both harmonizes transfer policies across states and indexes household income to local average earnings reduces this inefficiency by over 85 percent while still preserving the programs' means-tested nature.