As the US political system ties itself in knots over how to extend the relief measures offered to households during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s worth recalling just what an extraordinary intervention they turned out to be. US household income including government transfers rose 11.5% year-on-year in real terms in the second quarter of 2020, while household income without transfers fell 4.9%–which means transfers delivered an amazing 16.4-percentage-point boost to income growth.
The scale of the US support for household incomes during the pandemic also throws into sharp relief China’s decision not to offer a significant amount of such support. China’s household income fell 3.9% year-on-year in real terms in the first quarter, while household income without transfers fell 5.2%, which means transfers boosted household income by 1.3 percentage points. So while it would not be fair to say that China’s government did not deliver any additional support to household income during the pandemic, the amount was pretty small.
How much exactly did the Chinese government spend on household income support during the pandemic? It’s possible to put together some numbers from the household survey. Per-capita household income in China was Rmb8,561 in the first quarter and Rmb7,105 in the second quarter; of that, Rmb1,548 and Rmb1,390 was income from government transfers of various kinds. Multiply those figures by 1.4 billion people, and total household income was roughly Rmb12 trillion in the first quarter and Rmb10 trillion in the second quarter, with transfers totaling Rmb2.2 trillion and Rmb1.9 trillion.
Transfers for the first and second quarters were Rmb145 billion and Rmb180 billion higher than a year earlier, for a total year-on-year increase of Rmb325 billion, equivalent to 0.3% of 2019 GDP. It’s hard to know how much of that increase would have happened anyway without the pandemic. Since transfers for the first and second quarter in 2019 increased by a total of Rmb256 billion, so let’s call the additional increase above that in 2020–Rmb69 billion–the extra spending caused by the Covid pandemic.
This is probably not exactly right, but the order of magnitude should not be too far off. For instance, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security in July disclosed that a total of just RMB25.4 billion in unemployment benefits (失业保险金) and supplementary unemployment assistance (失业补助金) had been paid in the first half of 2020.
The ministry did not disclose the actual number of people receiving unemployment benefits at the end of the second quarter, but it did for the first quarter: only 2.38 million people, or approximately 0.5% of the urban employed population. What is even more striking is that number increased by just 100,000 people from the 2.28 million people at the end of 2019. In other words, during the biggest shock to employment in recent memory, when credible estimates showed tens of millions of people at least temporarily without work, the official unemployment rolls basically did not expand at all.
What would it have cost the Chinese government to offer more generous support to household incomes during the pandemic? Delivering as big of a boost as the US did is probably too much of an ask, so let’s set a lower standard of just cushioning the shock to the trend rate of household income growth. Household income grew 6.5% in real terms in the first half of 2019, so what would it have taken to keep household income growth at something close to that, say, 5%?
Given that CPI inflation in the first quarter was 5.0%, total household income would have had to grow 10.2% in nominal terms to reach 5% real growth; with CPI inflation slowing to 2.7% in the second quarter, only 7.9% nominal growth would have been required then. Those nominal growth rates would have raised total household income to Rmb13.1 trillion in the first quarter and Rmb10.3 trillion in the second quarter, instead of the actual figures of Rmb12 trillion and Rmb10 trillion. The extra transfers that would have been required are thus about Rmb1.4 trillion, mostly coming in the first quarter. Since there would also be some administrative overhead, let’s call the total a round Rmb1.5 trillion. That is just 1.5% of China’s GDP in 2019.
Of course, China’s government would have had no way of knowing in advance exactly how much money it would have had to spend to support household incomes during an unprecedented pandemic. But Rmb1.5 trillion is certainly not a figure so implausible as to be difficult to mobilize in a short period of time. And policy proposals of roughly that magnitude were actually being discussed during the height of the pandemic. For instance, Yao Yang, a prominent economist who is the dean of the National School of Development at Peking University, in April publicly proposed issuing Rmb1.4 trillion of special treasury bonds to finance household income support. He suggested structuring the payments as a one-off grant of Rmb2,000 to every person in the bottom 50% of the income distribution.
In the event, the government did eventually decide to issue Rmb1 trillion of special Covid-19 treasury bonds. But the proceeds of those bonds were dedicated to fiscal transfers to local governments. According to the Ministry of Finance, “the Covid-19 bonds will be mainly used for local public health and other infrastructure construction and epidemic response, while some funds will be reserved for local governments to solve special difficulties at the primary level.” Since money is fungible, those additional transfers to local governments do help support programs that support household incomes. But the bond issue was clearly not structured to deliver a boost to income transfers, and since the bonds did not actually start to be sold until June, they could not have helped the household income numbers for the first half.
Why did China’s government decide against a policy that could have prevented major damage to household finances at a reasonable fiscal cost? Its internal debates are mostly not public, so a definitive answer is difficult. But my best guess is the hold that a peculiar brand of fiscal conservatism seems to have over much of the government.
It’s a kind of state-socialist fiscal conservatism in which spending money to support household incomes and consumption is viewed as wasteful, while spending money to support corporate incomes and investment is viewed as wise long-term planning (see my post Why China isn’t sending money to everyone from May for more on this). Of course, the government did not stint on money to fund a massive mobilization of public-health measures to combat Covid-19; what is curious is that they did not feel the same urgency to directly address the economic consequences of the pandemic. The fact that most of the income losses were felt by rural migrant workers was also likely a factor in the political calculations: officials generally presume such workers can always eke out a subsistence living on their family farms, so they are not considered to need welfare benefits.
One thing the emergency of the pandemic has done is to make these distinctive biases and priorities of the Chinese government quite clear.