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Family Self-Sufficiency


[Note: Text that references rankings, charts, and data will be updated as work progresses on the 2020 Family Prosperity Index.]


A family’s freedom to control its own destiny is a key indicator of its economic prospects. The Family Self-Sufficiency major index measures the degree to which such factors as incarceration, dependence on government aid, and the capacity for charitable giving affect a family’s overall prosperity, as well as its effect on the larger community.


The level of incarceration in America has exploded in the past few decades with 2.3 million people serving time in federal and state prisons. The cost to state governments now exceeds $50 billion per year.[1] But the direct cost of running the prison system is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the economic and social costs of incarceration.


First, incarceration permanently lowers an individual’s long-term earning potential. A study from The Pew Charitable Trusts found:


Past incarceration reduced subsequent wages by 11 percent, cut annual employment by nine weeks and reduced yearly earnings by 40 percent.[2]


Second, incarceration may be behind the precipitous decline in male labor force participation. According to Nicholas Eberstadt, the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute:


Everyone knows that millions of criminal offenders today are behind bars–but few consider that many millions more are in the general population: ex-prisoners, probation cases and convicted felons who never served time. In all, America may now be home to over 20 million persons with a felony conviction in their past, and over 1 in 8 adult men. Men with a criminal history have much worse odds of being or staying in the labor force, regardless of their ethnicity or educational level. The explosive growth of our felon population, unfortunately, helps to explain some of the otherwise puzzling peculiarities of America’s male work crisis.[3]


Third, a recent study estimated that more than 5 million children have had at least one parent in prison at some point in their life.[4]   These children have to deal with a number of additional challenges including:


a higher number of other major, potentially traumatic life events—stressors that are most damaging when they are cumulative; more emotional difficulties, low school engagement, and more problems in school, among children ages 6 to 11; and a greater likelihood of problems in school among older youth (12 to 17), as well as less parental monitoring.


As damaging as incarceration is, it has intergenerational effects. A recent study looked at what happens to children who lose a parent to prison and found significant increases in teen crime and pregnancy and a decrease is early-life employment. It conservatively calculated the total social cost of parental incarceration at over $300,000 per family—twice the cost of incarcerating a non-parent.[5]


Additionally, the incarceration of one adult in the family, by definition, leaves the other adult as a single parent—depriving them of the advantages and resources of marriage (see the section on marriage). This problem is especially acute among black women, given the high incarceration rate of black men.[6]


A recent comprehensive accounting of the costs of incarceration for the nation estimated a single year total of $1.014 trillion, which is the equivalent of 6% of GDP.[7]


Another factor in determining family self-sufficiency is reliance on public assistance. Government at all levels (federal, state, and local) employs various welfare programs to mitigate the ill effects of poverty. Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are but a few. These programs are means-tested so they phase out as one’s income grows. All of the various rules and regulations they carry, however, create implicit incentives and disincentives for decisions about work effort and family structure.


The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a welfare program managed through the personal income tax system. Its transparency, a feature of being run through the tax system, lets economists study the incentives that welfare payments create for those who receive them.[8] The EITC has a defined phase-in (where benefit levels increase), plateau (where benefits remain constant), and phase-out (where benefits decrease). Using that data, economists calculate an implicit “effective marginal tax rate” (EMTR).


The current EITC can impose an EMTR of 21.1% in the phase-out range, which presents a significant barrier to work.[9] That is, earning an additional dollar on the job carries a cost—the loss of 21 cents in EITC benefits.


University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan conducted one of the most comprehensive studies of the effective marginal tax rate to date. He finds that EMTRs for non-elderly household heads and their spouses (with median earnings potential between them) are between 44 and 46 percent.[10] Even worse, the enactment of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) pushes the EMTR to over 50%!


The higher EMTR under Obamacare results from many provisions in the law, including the employer and employee health insurance mandates, health insurance subsidies for individuals on the state health exchanges, and Medicaid expansion.


States also create effective marginal tax rates when they establish rules for their own welfare programs. Oklahoma, for example, has its own EMTRs within its welfare system. A study by economists Mickey Hepner and Robert Reed found those tax rates to be a major barrier to both employment and marriage.[11] (The barrier was especially high for those seeking high-paying work.) A more recent study in Georgia found the same issues in that state’s welfare system.[12]


A recent study by Robert Rector succinctly summarized the negative impacts of welfare on family structure, saying welfare programs can make marriage less attractive:


Overall, the federal government operates over 80 means-tested welfare programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to poor and low-income individuals. Each program contains marriage penalties similar to those described above. Low-income families generally receive benefits from several programs at the same time. The marriage penalties from multiple programs when added together can provide substantial financial disincentives to marriage.[13]


Tax policy can also significantly undermine a family’s self-sufficiency, not only by reducing its after-tax income, but also by undermining the economy in which it operates.


Dr. David Romer and Dr. Christina Romer, both highly reputable economics professors at the University of California, Berkeley, have studied the last 50 years of changes in federal income tax law. (Christina Romer also lead the White House Council of Economic Advisors under President Obama.) In one scholarly article, they wrote:


This paper investigates the impact of tax changes on economic activity . . . [T]he behavior of output following these more exogenous changes indicates that tax increases are highly contractionary. The effects are strongly significant, highly robust, and much larger than those obtained using broader measures of tax changes.[14]


By “highly contractionary,” they meant, roughly speaking, “harming the economy.” Economist Robert Reed’s findings were similar:


I estimate the relationship between taxes and income growth using data from 1970-1999 and the forty-eight continental U.S. states. I find that taxes used to fund general expenditures are associated with significant, negative effects on income growth.[15]


In other words, when tax rates go up, economic growth slows down. Finally, high tax burdens hurt a state’s economy by making it more likely that private firms—and their jobs—will leave, as economists Xavier Giroud and Joshua Rauh found:


In this paper we have estimated economic responses to state-level business taxation by multistate firms on both the extensive and intensive margins. We find evidence consistent with substantial responses of these firms to state tax rates for the relevant tax rules. Corporate entities reduce the number of establishments per state and the number of employees and amount of capital per plant when state tax rates increase. Pass-through entities respond similarly to changes in state-level personal tax rates, although in somewhat smaller magnitude. Our specifications suggest that around half of these responses are due to reallocation of business activity to lower-tax states.[16]


Additionally, government spending is the redistribution of income to the public sector through taxes, and taxation comes at a very high cost (technically called “deadweight loss,” which is lost economic output). As noted by prominent Harvard economist Martin Feldstein:


The appropriate size and role of government depends on the deadweight burden caused by incremental transfers of funds from the private sector. The magnitude of that burden depends on the increases in tax rates required to raise incremental revenue and on the deadweight loss that results from higher tax rates…

[R]ecent econometric work implies that the deadweight burden caused by incremental taxation (the marginal excess burden) may exceed one dollar per one dollar of revenue raised, making the cost of incremental government spending more than two dollars for each dollar of government spending.[17]


Economists Stephen Brown, Kathy Hayes, and Lori Taylor examined state-level spending and found that at some point, government spending does more harm than good:


If anything, most public services do not appear to justify the taxes needed to finance them. Any tax savings financed by slower growth in environmental services, health and hospitals, or elementary and secondary education is positively associated with growth in private capital. Similarly, any tax savings financed by slower growth in public safety or education spending is positively associated with growth in private employment . . . [T]his finding would seem to imply that other state and local public capital has been increased to the point of negative returns, perhaps because a growing stock of other public capital is indicative of an increasingly intrusive government.[18]


Finally, economists Taehyun Kim and Quoc H. Nguyen conclude that as a result of government spending, private companies make fewer investments (needed for economic growth), leading to fewer opportunities for employees to seek higher-paying or different jobs:


To summarize, we find strong evidence that supports the hypothesis that government spending crowds out firm investment. We further provide novel and direct evidence that limited mobility of workers is an important channel through which the crowding-out effect can occur.[19]


Charitable giving, an outgrowth of family self-sufficiency, has a number of beneficial effects on donors, recipients, and society as a whole. Religion plays a large role in charity, both as a motivator and a recipient of giving. In fact, 61 percent of charitable giving is for religious purposes, and religiously motivated giving is an increasing and stable source of funds for charities.[20]


As discussed in the section on religion, people who are the most religious enjoy healthier lives, report less depression, and enjoy overall greater well-being. But giving, whether done as an expression of religious commitment or not, has important public policy implications, as discussed in a recent study:


. . . [A] growing body of literature documents that giving to others reduces stress and strengthens the immune system, which results in better health and longer life expectancy. These findings imply that tax subsidies for charitable giving may have positive spillover effects on health.[21]


Charitable giving, in short, helps both the receiver and giver.[22]


The pattern of charitable giving also illustrates why raising the overall level of family prosperity is so important. Of the $194 billion given in 2013, nearly three-quarters, or 71 percent ($138 billion), came from those earning over $100,000. This is why we not only examine the charitable giving of all taxpayers but separately analyze those earning over $100,000.


Unfortunately, there has been a noticeable downswing in charitable contributions, especially after the Great Recession. The recession reduced giving by reducing incomes. But a recent study suggested that something more permanent than a single recession may be at work. That is, there may be “broader shifts in attitudes towards giving or increased uncertainty at work.”[23]


Given the iportance of religion to charitable giving, perhaps the “shifts in attitudes” relate to the ongoing decline in religious participation. Clearly, more research is needed on charitable giving, a vital measure of family self-sufficiency.


As shown in Chart 31 and Table 4:


State Prisoners


State prisoners, as a percent of population, declined nationally from 0.44 percent in 2000 to 0.41 percent in 2016, a decline of 7 percent (Chart 32). In 2016, Louisiana had more prisoners than any other state, as a percentage of its population (0.76), while Massachusetts had the least (0.14)—or 18 percent of the Louisiana rate.[24]


Massachusetts had the top score (8.80) in the state prisoners sub-index, followed by Utah (7.95), New Jersey (7.70), Minnesota (7.14), and New Hampshire (7.08). Louisiana had the lowest score (1.31). Other low-scoring states included Oklahoma (1.46), Delaware (1.92), Arkansas (2.01), and Arizona (2.45).


Real, Per Capita Medicaid Spending


Medicaid spending (per person) increased nationally by 75 percent from $994 in 2000 to $1,736 in 2016 (Chart 33). New York spent the most of all states in 2016, at $3,140 per person, while Utah spent the least at $786—or 25 percent of what New York spent.[25]


Utah had the top score (7.64) in the Medicaid spending sub-index, followed by Wyoming (7.55), South Dakota (7.26), Idaho (7.24), and Alabama (7.21). New York had the lowest score (1.08). Other low-scoring states included New Mexico (2.12), Alaska (2.20), Vermont (2.42), and Massachusetts (2.56).




Welfare enrollment and spending comes in many forms, including the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This report includes data from 2000 to 2015 (for the EITC) and 2000 to 2016 (for SNAP), giving trends on both state and national spending and participation (Charts 34 through 37).


The EITC rate (as a percent of taxpayers) increased nationally by 27 percent from 14.8 percent in 2000 to 18.8 percent in 2015 (Chart 34). In 2015, Mississippi had the highest EITC rate at 31.6 percent, while New Hampshire had the lowest at 11.5 percent—or 36 percent of the Mississippi rate.[26]


The amount of real, EITC spending (per EITC recipient) increased nationally by 7 percent, going from $2,399 in 2000 to $2,432 in 2015 (Chart 35). In 2015, Mississippi had the highest spending on EITC at $2,866. Vermont had the lowest at $1,925—or 67 percent of Mississippi’s rate.


The SNAP rate (as a percent of population receiving SNAP benefits) increased nationally by 123 percent, going from 6.1 percent in 2000 to 13.6 percent in 2016 (Chart 36). In 2016, New Mexico had the highest SNAP rate at 22.6 percent, while Wyoming had the lowest at 5.8 percent—or 26 percent of the New Mexico rate.[27]

The amount of real, SNAP spending (per person) increased nationally by 18 percent from $102.40 in 2000 to $125.40 in 2015 (Chart 37). Hawaii had the highest SNAP spending of all states in 2016, at $228.33 per person, while New Hampshire had the lowest at $102.03—or 45 percent of Hawaii’s rate.


New Hampshire had the top score (7.51) on the welfare sub-index, followed by North Dakota (7.01), Utah (6.61), Minnesota (6.44), and Wyoming (6.43). Mississippi had the lowest score (2.15). Other low-scoring states included Louisiana (2.52), Georgia (2.87), New Mexico (3.10), and Alabama (3.24).


Note: EITC rate, EITC spending, SNAP rate, and SNAP spending were weighted equally in the welfare sub-index.


Government Burden


Two charts track the burden of government—both the tax burden and spending—nationally and in the 50 states from fiscal years 2000 to 2015.[28]


The state and local tax burden (as a percent of private sector personal income) increased nationally by 4 percent from 13.9 percent in 2000 to 14.5 percent in 2015 (Chart 38). New York had the highest tax burden of all states in 2015 at 21.7 percent of private sector personal income, while Alaska had the lowest at 4 percent—or 18 percent of New York’s level.


State and local expenditures (as a percent of private sector personal income) increased nationally by 13 percent from 27.8 percent in 2000 to 32 percent in 2015 (Chart 39). Alaska had the highest expenditures in 2015 at 63.9 percent, while New Hampshire had the lowest at 21.8 percent—or 34 percent of Alaska’s level.


Florida had the top score in the government burden sub-index (6.90), followed by New Hampshire (6.76), Texas (6.54), South Dakota (6.54), and Oklahoma (6.48). New Mexico had the lowest score (1.99). Other low-scoring states included New York (2.27), North Dakota (2.43), West Virginia (2.52), and Hawaii (2.56). A high score on the sub-index suggests that state and local governments in a state impose a relatively low burden on families.


Notes: Tax burdens and expenditures were weighted equally in the government burden sub-index.

Alaska annually distributes dividends from the Permanent Fund created from oil and gas revenue. These funds are treated as a reduction in the tax burden.




Charitable giving—including the rate and level of charitable giving—varies over time both nationally and in the states (Charts 40 through 43).[29]


The charity rate (the percent of taxpayers who claim a deduction on their federal tax forms for charitable contributions) declined nationally by 16 percent from 29.2 percent in 2000 to 24.6 percent in 2015 (Chart 40). Maryland had the highest charity rate in 2015 at 38.5 percent, while West Virginia had the lowest at 12.3 percent—or 32 percent of the Maryland rate.


Real, charitable contributions (per taxpayer) increased nationally by 21 percent from $4,973 in 2000 to $6,006 in 2015 (Chart 41). Wyoming had the highest charity giving of all states in 2015 at $13,231 per taxpayer, while Rhode Island had the lowest at $3,231—or 24 percent of Wyoming’s amount.


The charity rate for taxpayers earning more than $100,000 (as a percent of all taxpayers with that income) declined nationally by 17 percent from 87 percent in 2000 to 72 percent in 2015 (Chart 42). Maryland had the highest rate of all states in 2015 at 83.8 percent, while North Dakota had the lowest at 39.1 percent—or 47 percent of the Maryland rate.


Real, charitable contributions for taxpayers earning more than $100,000 (per taxpayer earning that income) declined nationally by 20 percent from $11,441 in 2000 to $9,155 in 2015 (Chart 43). Wyoming had the highest amount of charity giving in 2015 at $23,056 per taxpayer in this group, while Rhode Island had the lowest at $4,756—or 21 percent of Wyoming’s amount.


Utah had the top score for the charity sub-index (8.79), followed by Georgia (8.36), New York (7.26), Arkansas (7.01), and Connecticut (6.98). West Virginia had the lowest score (2.34). Other low-scoring states included Maine (2.55), Alaska (2.80), New Hampshire (3.18), and New Mexico (3.29).


Note: In the charity sub-index, the state charity rates for all taxpayers and for taxpayers earning over $100,000 were weighted 30 percent and 20 percent, respectively. Similarly, state charitable contributions per taxpayer and per taxpayer earning over $100,000 were weighted 30 percent and 20 percent, respectively.

Wyoming’s charity contributions were very high relative to the other states. The IRS confirmed, via email correspondence, that there are no errors in the data for charitable giving in the state.


Charts 41 and 43 do not show all of Wyoming’s data in order to better show differential among the other 49 states. 

[1]      Pettit, Becky and Western, Bruce, “Collateral Costs: Incarceration’s Effect on Economic Mobility,” The Pew Charitable Trusts, 2010. http://www.pewtrusts.org/~/media/legacy/uploadedfiles/pcs_assets/2010/collateralcosts1pdf.pdf


[2]      Ibid.


[3]      Eberstadt, Nicholas, “America’s Unseen Social Crisis: Men Without Work,” Time, September, 22, 2016.


[4]      Cooper, P. Mae and Murphey, David, “Parents Behind Bars: What Happens to Their Children?,” Child Trends, October 2015. http://www.childtrends.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/2015-42ParentsBehindBars.pdf


[5]      Dobbie, Will; Gronqvist, Hans; Niknami, Susan; Palme, Marten; and Priks, Mikael, “The Intergenerational Effects of Parental Incarceration,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 24186. https://www.princeton.edu/~wdobbie/files/parentspillovers.pdf


[6]      “Sex and the Single Black Woman: How the Mass Incarceration of Black Men Hurts Black Women,” The Economist, April 8, 2010. http://www.economist.com/node/15867956


[7]      Brown, Derek; McLaughlin, Michael; Pettus-Davis, Carrie; Renn, Tanya; and Veech, Chris, “The Economic Burden of Incarceration in the U.S.,” Institute for Advancing Justice Research and Innovation, George Warren Brown School of Social Work, Washington University in St. Louis, Working Paper #AJI072016, October 2016. https://advancingjustice.wustl.edu/sitecollectiondocuments/the%20economic%20burden%20of%20incarceration%20in%20the%20us.pdf


[8]      Hall, Arthur P. and Moody, J. Scott, “Growth of the Earned Income Tax Credit,” Tax Foundation, Special Report, No. 53, September 1995. http://taxfoundation.org/sites/taxfoundation.org/files/docs/7b76310a7234556cb06bdc66974385bb.pdf


[9]      Many states piggyback on the federal EITC which increases the marginal tax rate. For example, see: Moody, J. Scott, “The Earned Income Tax Credit Does Not Help Working Families,” Illinois Policy Institute, March 4, 2014. https://www.illinoispolicy.org/policy-points/the-earned-income-tax-credit-does-not-help-working-families/


[10]     Mulligan, Casey B., “Average Marginal Labor Income Tax Rates Under Affordable Care Act,” National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 19365, August 2013. http://home.uchicago.edu/~cbm4/MulliganMTRACA.pdf


[11]     Hepner, Mickey and Reed, W. Robert, “The Effect of Welfare on Work and Marriage: A View from the States,” Cato Journal, Vol. 24, No. 3, Fall 2004. http://econwpa.repec.org/eps/hew/papers/0506/0506001.pdf


[12]     Randolph, Erik, “Disincentives for Work and Marriage in Georgia’s Welfare System,” Georgia Center for Opportunity, September 2016. http://georgiaopportunity.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/GCO1611_White_Paper_Online.pdf


[13]     Rector, Robert, “How Welfare Undermines Marriage and What To Do About It,” The Heritage Foundation, Issue Brief No. 4032, November 17, 2014. https://www.heritage.org/welfare/report/how-welfare-undermines-marriage-and-what-do-about-it


[14]     Romer, Christina D. and Romer, David H., “The Macroeconomic Effects of Tax Changes: Estimates Based on a New Measure of Fiscal Shocks,” American Economic Review 100, June 2010, pp. 763-801. http://eml.berkeley.edu/~dromer/papers/RomerandRomerAERJune2010.pdf


[15]     Reed, W. Robert, “The Robust Relationship between Taxes and U.S. State Income Growth,” National Tax Journal, Vol. LXI, No. 1, March 2008. http://www.ntanet.org/NTJ/61/1/ntj-v61n01p57-80-robust-relationship-between-taxes.pdf


[16]     Giroud, Xavier and Rauh, Joshua, “State Taxation and the Reallocation of Business Activity: Evidence from Establishment-Level Data,” NBER Working Paper 21534, September 2015. http://www.mit.edu/~xgiroud/Taxes.pdf


[17]     Feldstein, Martin, “How Big Should Government Be?” National Tax Journal, Vol. 50, No. 2 (June 1997), pp. 197-213. https://www.ntanet.org/NTJ/50/2/ntj-v50n02p197-213-how-big-should-government.pdf?v=%CE%B1&r=15017736809172388


[18]     Brown, Stephen, P.A., Hayes, Kathy J., and Taylor, Lori L. “State and Local Policy, Factor Markets, and Regional Growth,” The Review of Regional Studies, Vol. 33, No. 1, 2003, pp. 40–60. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=


[19]     Kim, Taehyun and Nguyen, Quoc H., “The Effect of Public Spending on Private Investment: Evidence from Census Shocks,” Working Paper, August 27, 2015. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2654566


[20]     List, John A., “The Market for Charitable Giving,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 25, No. 2, Spring 2011, pp. 157-180. http://home.uchicago.edu/~jlist/papers/The%20Market%20for%20Charitable%20Giving.pdf


[21]     Yoruk, Baris K., “Does Giving to Charity Lead to Better Health? Evidence from Tax Subsidies for Charitable Giving,” Journal of Economic Psychology, Vol. 45, December 2014, pp. 71-83. http://www.albany.edu/economics/research/workingp/2013/yoruk1.pdf


[22]     Though charities tout the tax advantage of giving to them, they might fare better were tax rates—and the accompanying advantage of giving— reduced. That is because higher marginal tax rates lead to higher government spending and/or slower economic growth; this impact results in a “crowd-out” of charitable activity by reducing families’ ability to give. For more information, see: Gruber, Jonathan and Hungerman, Daniel M., “Faith-based Charity and Crowd-Out During the Great Depression,” Journal of Public Economics, No. 91, 2007, pp. 1043-1069. http://economics.mit.edu/files/6424


[23]     Meer, Jonathan, Miller, David, and Wulfsberg, Elisa, “The Great Recession and Charitable Giving,” November, 2016. http://people.tamu.edu/~jmeer/Meer_Miller_Wulfsberg_Great_Recession_and_Charitable_Giving_161120.pdf


[24]     U.S. Department of Justice: Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics. http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=nps


[25]     Regional Data, U.S. Department of Commerce: Bureau of Economic Analysis. http://www.bea.gov/itable/iTable.cfm?ReqID=70&step=1#reqid=70&step=1&isuri=1

Adjusted for inflation using the personal consumption expenditure deflator, in 2016 dollars


[26]     Internal Revenue Service, Statistics of Income, SOI Tax Stats – Historic Table 2.  https://www.irs.gov/uac/SOI-Tax-Stats-Historic-Table-2

Adjusted for inflation using the personal consumption expenditure deflator, in 2016 dollars


[27]     U.S. Department of Agriculture: Food and Nutrition Service. http://www.fns.usda.gov/pd/supplemental-nutrition-assistance-program-snap

Adjusted for inflation using the personal consumption expenditure deflator, in 2016 dollars


[28]     U.S. Department of Commerce: Census Bureau. http://www.census.gov/govs/index.html


[29]     Internal Revenue Service, Statistics of Income, SOI Tax Stats – Historic Table 2.


Adjusted for inflation using the personal consumption expenditure deflator, in 2016 dollars​​​​