Blackwell Publishing Journal Backfiles 1879-2005
*: The revolution in transaction costs brought about by new technology can make it economically efficient to restore purchasing power to citizens in the case of in-kind benefits. Analysis of the economic and institutional evolution of the US electronic benefit transfer (EBT) experience shows that a system of welfare payments can evolve either towards monopolistic (or semi-monopolistic) solutions promoted by government or towards competitive, open-market solutions. The EBT system has addressed the diseconomies created by the high proportion of unbanked citizens among welfare recipients by creating electronic pseudoaccounts for the unbanked piggybacked on the commercial payments infrastructure. The EBT card is the first obligatory payment card to be issued by a government, albeit through the intermediary of a government-designated issuer (GDI). Moving to chip cards, the problems posed by setting up a large-scale network of terminals and the fact that ‘universal’ welfare cards are born as ‘natural’ government monopolies may lead banks, governments and central banks to consider the great economies of scale and of critical mass for migration that can be offered by combining various functions in a single, universally distributed ‘citizen card'. Starting with health care, European citizen cards could gradually take over functions such as the transfer of benefits to specific groups of citizens, payment for other public services, payment of national and local taxes, and payment for utilities. This would make explicit the level of subsidization now implicit in the provision of benefits in kind. The clear indication of deductions, reimbursements and subsidies in the context of payment would mark a considerable advance in the transparency of the welfare market.
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