Transfer Payments and the Macroeconomy: The Effects of Social Security Benefit Changes, 1952-1991

Christina D. Romer, David H. Romer

NBER Working Paper No. 20087
Issued in May 2014
NBER Program(s):Development of the American Economy, Economic Fluctuations and Growth, Monetary Economics, Public Economics

From the early 1950s to the early 1990s, increases in Social Security benefits in the United States varied widely in size and timing, and were only rarely undertaken in response to short-run macroeconomic developments. This paper uses these benefit increases to investigate the macroeconomic effects of changes in transfer payments. It finds a large, immediate, and statistically significant response of consumption to permanent changes in transfers. The response appears to decline at longer horizons, however, and there is no clear evidence of effects on industrial production or employment. These effects differ sharply from the effects of relatively exogenous tax changes: the impact of transfers is faster, but much less persistent and dramatically smaller overall. Finally, we find strong statistical and narrative evidence of a sharply contractionary monetary policy response to permanent benefit increases that is not present for tax changes. This may account for the lower persistence of the consumption effects of transfers and their failure to spread to broader indicators of economic activity.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w20087

Published: Romer, Christina D., and David H. Romer. 2016. "Transfer Payments and the Macroeconomy: The Effects of Social Security Benefit Increases, 1952-1991." American Economic Journal: Macroeconomics, 8 (4): 1-42. DOI: 10.1257/mac.20140348

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