NYT Discovers "Ghetto Tax"

The NYT had a good article this morning highlighting a new Brookings report that details how people living in inner city areas often pay far more for goods and services than people living in more affluent areas. The report is worth reading and the NYT gets credit for calling attention to it.

Unfortunately, the report suffers from a serious lack of imagination in its proposed remedies, highlighting greater public-private cooperation in bringing lower cost services to the poor. I have nothing against cooperation, but I always worry that these efforts end up being more of a subsidy to the industries involved than the poor people that they are supposed to help. My model nightmare is the accounts established to receive electronic payments from the government (e.g. disability or veterans benefits) for low income people. They cost the government a great deal in subsidies to the financial industry, and do very little for their intended beneficiaries.

In some cases, I prefer good old fashioned competition. Suppose the government set up postal banking systems (similar to those existing in many European countries) that could provide basic banking services to the poor at a minimal charge. (The government could even contract with a private company to actually provide the service.) This way, people in the inner cities would all have a low-cost option. If they would rather go with the private sector alternatives, then that's fine. The same could be done with car insurance, home insurance, and especially retirement accounts. If the private sector really is more efficient, then they should have nothing to fear.

--Dean Baker

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