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Hicks, Robbins and the demise of Pigovian welfare economics: rectification and amplification.

I. Introduction

It is to be welcomed that Nahid Aslanbeigui in her article "On The Demise of Pigovian Economics," which recently appeared in this journal[2], drew attention to the merits of Pigou's work in the fields of welfare economics and employment theory. It again evinces the thorough knowledge of Pigou noticeable in her enlightening comparison between his and Marshall's opinions on important issues of economic policy[1]. Her new paper testifies to the belief that Pigou's ideas tend to be underrated nowadays, while they are in fact still relevant to modem debates. Her discussion offers valuable insights.

The part dealing with welfare economics is concerned with the emergence in Britain during the thirties of the "new welfare economics" in the Paretian style that was to supersede the prevailing Marshallian tradition, with Pigou as foremost representative. Aslanbeigui sketches four "methodological attacks" by Hicks and Robbins on Pigou, which she holds responsible for the decline of Pigovian welfare economics [2, 621-22]. She rightly centers on these authors as the principal figures in this transition, but her outline is in several aspects unsatisfactory, incomplete, too simplified and marred by some errors and misrepresentations.

This paper aims to present a more adequate account of the topics she discusses and their significance for the transformation of welfare economics, emphasizing the distinct contributions of Hicks and Robbins to this process and comparing them in greater detail than Aslanbeigui does with the ideas held by Pigou. In addition, as a second purpose, it examines how the opinions of the main actors on the issues involved developed beyond the period covered by Aslanbeigui. The problems touched on by her are treated in this way in sections II, Ill and IV on the concept of material welfare and ordinalism, aggregate concepts, and interpersonal comparisons of utility respectively. It appears that of the four attacks described by Aslanbeigui only the one on interpersonal comparisons was relevant to the decline of Pigou's welfare economics. A subsequent section shows how later on Hicks's and Robbins's appreciation of the new welfare economics has evolved and diverged. The concluding section comments briefly on Aslanbeigui's evaluation of the replacement of Pigovian by Paretian welfare economics.(1)

II. Material Welfare and Ordinalism

Aslanbeigui mentions as the first attack Robbins's objections to the notion that material welfare is the subject-matter of economics [36, 4 ff]. Here she repeats an error made some years ago by Cooter and Rappaport [10, 513], neglecting a subsequent correction [13, 81; 14, 143]. Robbins's criticism was mainly aimed at Cannan and not at all at Pigou, who never held this criterion for the scope of economics. He indicated as its subject-matter "economic welfare," conceived as "that part of social welfare that can be brought directly or indirectly into relation with the measuring-rod of money" [29, 11]. He distinguished it from "material welfare," defined by him, in a much broader sense than Cannan, as "a man's income or possessions," which "may be a means to welfare" [40, 288]. In his Essay Robbins clearly regarded Pigou's definition, mentioned only in passing, as different from Cannan's [36, 21 n. 1]; later he called the distinction between his scarcity definition of economics and Pigou's criticism "a very minor point indeed" [38, 344; 40, 105]. So the alleged attack never took place.

Secondly, she contrasts Pigou's cardinal utility concept to Robbins's preference for the ordinal definition. Therefore he "approved of Hicks's revival of the Paretian theory," which Aslanbeigui illustrates with some quotations. This juxtaposition of Robbins and Hicks does not bring out as clearly as one might wish their relative merits with regard to the substitution of ordinal for cardinal utility as the dominant version. Robbins's argument was confined to a few brief statements on the general principle of ordinalism [36, 56, 75] which he learnt particularly from Wicksteed and the Austrians [40, 103-4; 28, 159-60]. His influence was slight if not negligible compared to the impact of one of the authors of what has been called the "Hicks-Allen Revolution" [4, 368], "the great technologist in this matter" [46, 83] and "the century's leading proponent of the nonmeasurability of utility" [7, 281].

Moreover, the change was not specifically propagated against Pigou, named neither by Robbins nor by Hicks in this connection.(2) The introduction of ordinalism was certainly not intended as an attack on his welfare economics. As Hicks later made clear, ordinalism was advanced as an improvement of the theory of demand which, to his mind, "had nothing to do with welfare" [18, XIII; its application to demand theory and to welfare economics raises "quite different issues" [17, 41. That Pigou had no reason to feel endangered on this account is shown in his final reflections on welfare economics where he himself converted to ordinalism, unconcerned with the borderline drawn by Hicks [31, 289 ff.], a view he recapitulated the next year [32, 43 ff.]. Unlike Pigou, his fellow Marshallian Robertson adopted the dualist position that ordinalism is acceptable, though not necessarily preferable, in the theory of consumer behavior, but that in welfare economics cardinalism is a requirement for interpersonal comparisons which he defended tenaciously [44, 37 ff.; 45, 57-58].

Aslanbeigui admits that the revision of utility theory does not seem "to have been a strong factor in the demise of Pigovian economics" [2, 621 n. 7] but this still overstates the case. One wonders why she lists it among the attacks on Pigou.

The rather superficial alliance of Robbins and Hicks in the matter of ordinalism had a curious sequel. Discussing Robertson's defense of cardinalism in 1953 [44, 17 ff.], Robbins not only played down the importance of the issue, but waned in his adherence to ordinalism. If Robertson was right to argue that ordinalism precluded a comparison of differences between preferences, he said, "I will cheerfully consent to being a cardinalist" [40, 104]. He went on to appeal to "some authoritative ordinalist, such as Professor Hicks," to elucidate the difficulty. The authority called upon did not fail his erstwhile mentor[16]. Robbins did not reply to Hicks's explanation, but judging from the broad agreement, expressed some years later, with what has been called "Hicksian introspective ordinalism" [41, X; 25, XIV] it may have saved him from forsaking their original harmony.

III. Aggregates

Next Aslanbeigui records that Robbins's methodology was "against macroeconomics and such aggregate concepts as the national dividend." Since her treatment of this typically Austrian strand in Robbins's Essay merely consists of a few quotations, it can do with some elaboration.

Robbins indeed harbored serious reservations about the economic significance of aggregate magnitudes [36, 56 ff.; 37, 464-65](3) His basic argument was that the truly important economic phenomena, "the valuations which the price system expresses," are relationships and hence "incapable of addition. Their aggregate has no meaning". Such constructions rest on arbitrary assumptions and lack precision: "a change in the aggregate of production is not a definite conception" [36, 661, because the valuations which are used change with the composition of output. Accordingly he adopted "an extremely agnostic attitude to index numbers" [28, 158]. The chief defect of aggregate concepts is that they have no theoretical significance, "they do not follow from the main categories of pure theory" [36, 57 and 63]. This does not imply, however, that Robbins rejected them completely. He acknowledged that they have "a quite definitive meaning in monetary theory" and, besides, "a conventional significance" and "a certain arbitrary meaning which is not without its uses" [36, 57]. He also allowed that for certain questions, in spite of arbitrary elements, "the index number technique is of great practical utility" [36, 63; 37, 465].

As in the attacks discussed above, Pigou is absent from these considerations. Robbins's warnings clearly addressed a more general tendency but it is plausible that in this he implicitly included Pigou.(4) At all events they were divided on the methodological status of aggregates. In Pigou's welfare economics the "national dividend" had, despite conceptual puzzles allowing only "unsatisfactory compromises" with "violent paradoxes," a definite theoretical standing as "the objective counterpart of economic welfare" [29, 31-32]. About this Robbins says nothing, as one might have expected in a direct attack on Pigou. On the other hand, Pigou fully recognized, with regard to the calculation of changes in the size of the national dividend, difficulties and limitations [29, ch. V] which are similar to those stressed by Robbins; the latter's observation about the conventional element in index numbers is amply illustrated in Pigou's much more extensive analysis [29, ch. VI]. So the contradiction is less strong and more ambiguous than Aslanbeigui makes it appear.

More important for her main theme is that Robbins's methodological scepticism about aggregates had no noticeable effect on the fortunes of Pigovian welfare economics. It is true that in the new welfare economics the social income lost the central place it occupied in Pigou's design, but this did not flow from doubts like those voiced by Robbins. As Hicks pointed out in his classical exposition of the new approach, it was a by-product of the advent of Pareto optimality as the fundamental principle. The loss of its function brought with it the advantage that the theory could dispense with raising "the awkward problems about the definition of real income which gave so much trouble to Professor Pigou." On this ground, he relegated the social income to the chapter after that on welfare economics [15, 704, n. 1; 18, 67, n. 12]. This operation was a much more telling blow to the heart of Pigou's system than Robbins's ruminations.

The rearrangement did not entail disparagement. On the contrary, undeterred by Robbinsian misgivings, the following year Hicks began his explorations of "the valuation of social income" which became, with related topics like the measurement of capital, an abiding specialty [18, chs. 3, 8, 9, 11]. These searching analyses, concluded only in 1981, are a continuation of Pigou's chapters on the national dividend, for which Hicks showed undisguised and increasing appreciation.

This esteem culminated when, in a notable essay on the state of welfare economics published in 1975 [18, ch. 10], he recommended putting allocation theory "back into the frame in which it was set by Pigou" [18, 230] so as to connect it again with his central subject, the "national dividend." Here and elsewhere Hicks stressed the theoretical and practical importance of the problems relating to the social product. Some time afterwards he retracted his earlier view that it does not belong to welfare economics [18, XIV]. In Hicks's final version, the Pigovian system lives on as regards its essential design and wide scope (with one important restriction mentioned below) as the science of wealth or "plutology" [20, 13] inherited from the classics: "The Economics of Welfare is The Wealth of Nations in a new guise" [18, 223]. This ending could hardly be imagined from Aslanbeigui's presentation of the anti-Pigovian Hicks.

It is also a far cry from Robbins's doubts about aggregates. But in the course of time this contrast between the two lost its edge. Robbins's theoretical views about macroeconomics, as thoroughly set out by O'Brien [27, 117 ff.; 28, 177 ff.], underwent a considerable change away from their initial Austrian orientation (though he did not become a Keynesian) and correspondingly his methodological position shifted so that his "prewar opposition to the concept of aggregation as a whole had disappeared" [28, 178; 33, 4]. Since he did not explicitly return to the problem and his later macroeconomic writings mainly dealt with practical topics, the question remains how far his acceptance of macroeconomic concepts extended beyond the qualified approval he always granted them. In any case one may doubt that he could have been likely to agree wholeheartedly with Hicks's eventual predilection for the Pigovian system.

IV. Interpersonal Comparisons of Utility

Finally Aslanbeigui indicates as the "most destructive and controversial attack" Robbins's repudiation of interpersonal comparisons of utility. According to her, he condemned their application in Pigovian welfare economics as "normative and therefore unscientific" or, in other words, as "based on ethical postulates, not scientific ones". She contends that Robbins and Hicks "branded Pigou's premises as being normative" [2, 617] and states that Robbins mounted a "charge of normativeness" [2, 622].

Once again Aslanbeigui is inaccurate in relating Robbins's contention explicitly to Pigou, whose name does not appear in the pages of the Essay she refers to; neither does he figure in Robbins's reply to critics some years later[39]. He could omit to mention Pigou because he opposed a prevailing body of opinion and may have preferred to avoid a personal polemic. However that may be, Aslanbeigui is in so far right that Robbins's contestation chiefly challenged Pigou, for in his great treatise which virtually created welfare economics as a special subject interpersonal comparisons are an integral element.

A more serious defect of Aslanbeigui's account is that she misrepresents Robbins's argument, turning it on its head. It is not true that he censured the introduction of unscientific normative utility comparisons. His complaint was precisely the opposite one that they were wrongly regarded as positive propositions. He criticized the failure to understand that they are "essentially normative" [36, 139] and to present them as such. Aslanbeigui's somewhat ambiguous formulation that Pigou's premises were "found to be ethical" must be read as meaning that, contrary to Pigou's view, Robbins argued that they should be conceived as ethical judgments. So there was no "charge of normativeness" against those who thought like Pigou, but a charge of unwarranted positiveness. Possibly this is what Aslanbeigui tries to convey, but if so she does it in a confusing manner.

In consequence she may give rise to the impression that Robbins aimed at faulting the normative application of interpersonal utility comparisons, the more so as she connects the dispute with the controversy about value-free economics.(5) Actually he judged this normative practice fully admissible and repeatedly recommended it as the correct one, provided its nature were clearly recognized. Illustrative is that on the one hand he strongly objected to the usual assumption of equal capacity of satisfaction as a judgment of fact, while according to him it ought to be seen as an ethical principle [39, 637], and on the other hand emphatically upheld the equality postulate "in political calculations," insisting that it does not belong to economic science but "comes from outside" [39, 635, 641]. The introduction of interpersonal comparability in the normative sense marks him off from earlier opponents of factual comparisons like Jevons and Pareto. In this Robbinsian guise the notion of interpersonal comparability of utility has become current after his onslaught on its older incarnation, though, as Aslanbeigui notices, its victory has never been a total one.

On a later occasion Robbins again distinguished between the justified "conventional" and the erroneous "objective" interpretation of interpersonal comparisons [42, 148]. The primary point at issue was plainly his rejection of the latter notion; the first one was offered as an alternative. If Robbins had cast his charge the way Aslanbeigui renders it he would have been wide of the mark. This is evident from Pigou's answer and related discussions. He did not hasten to take up the gauntlet. A one-page first reply came in 1947 in connection with the principles of taxation[30, 41-42], a more extensive one nearly two decades after Robbins's critique. Here Pigou naturally did not defend the introduction of ethical postulates of which he, contrary to what Aslanbeigui makes out, was not accused. He justified the comparisons as plausible factual or descriptive judgments and hence sustained the view that a redistribution of income could actually bring about an increase in economic welfare [31, 290 ff.]. He ignored Robbins until, in a brief restatement, he granted him a footnote remarking offhandedly that to call the comparisons value judgments is "a difference of name which does not seem to me to matter"[32, 45 n. 3].

Though Pigou advanced arguments well worth considering Robbins did not reply directly to his response nor did he otherwise fully come to grips with it. He did, however, react to Robertson, who in his usual sharp-witted and witty fashion had upheld also in this respect, as has been noted, the Marshallian canon on utility against the "Paretian dogma"[44, 37 ff]. Extending "a tiny olive branch" [40, 107 ff.], he showed himself disposed to meet Robertson part of the way by abandoning the characterization of interpersonal comparisons as value judgments and to agree that they are "judgments of a certain kind of fact." This concession did not reflect a substantial change of mind. He went on to contend once more that they rest on conventional and obviously untrue assumptions of a political nature about the equal capacity of satisfaction. This may presumably be understood to mean that even though they are not themselves value judgments they are based upon postulates of this kind. The olive branch was of no avail. Robertson was not impressed by this reasoning and stuck to the opinion that the comparisons are meaningful and operational propositions, independent of "extra-economic considerations" [45, 57].

Robbins was likewise unconvinced. In his autobiography he claimed that in this controversy "my withers remained completely unwrung" [42, 148]. He never tired of combating what for him was a dangerous fallacy. In his last excursion into welfare economics, towards the end of his long and fertile scholarly career, he reiterated forcefully that interpersonal comparisons have no legitimate place in economic science, but eschewed calling them value judgments[43, 5]. Thus the common view that Robbins regarded the comparisons as value judgments seems to need the qualification that in later life he saw them as resting on such judgments.

V. The Paretian Solution

Of Aslanbeigui's four attacks only the last one really counted: for its vulnerable target, its persuasive power and its rapid success. The fundamental divide lay in this dispute. Pigou acknowledged that if the argument were valid it would strike "a devastating blow at welfare economics" [32, 46].

In this case, by contrast to ordinalism, Robbins's impact dwarfed that of Hicks, which is reflected in Aslanbeigui's account. The relationship also differed in that with respect to ordinalism Robbins was not a mere follower while Hicks described himself as being just that in connection with interpersonal comparability. At a rather late stage he simply joined Robbins with a few words [15, 697; 18, 61]; as he later recalled it, "I readily accepted his rejection of comparability" because it "was in line with the ordinalism I had got from Pareto" [20, 357].(6) Therefore it can scarcely be said that he too "branded Pigou's premises as being normative." He never swerved from the course set out by Robbins [18, 219]. This is why his acclaim of the Pigovian "plutology" did not undo the demise in Aslanbeigui's sense; hence the synthesis of the old and the new welfare economics he envisaged was in this respect incomplete.

Robbins was well aware that he had more than a few predecessors, also from the Austrian quarter [36, 141; 39, 637]. That he was the one to effect the breakthrough, at least in the English-speaking countries,(7) may be partly due to the quality of his reasoning and his elegant style; anyway the profession appeared to be ready for it.(8)

The difference between Robbins's and Hicks's roles in this switch-over points to the quite distinct but complementary parts they played in the transition to the "new" Paretian welfare economics. Robbins's impact was primarily negative, that of Hicks constructive. The former did not actively participate in the reconstruction nor did he show much interest in it. Yet his negation also "changed the face of welfare economics"[27, 40] by a positive result as it gave the crucial impulse to the transformation accomplished by others, among whom Hicks was the most effective with his seminal article of 1939[15; 18, ch. 9].(9) Kaldor, who anticipated him in the preceding issue of The Economic Journal with a paper "still famous after fifty years"[11, 19], also took his "entire agreement" with Robbins as a point of departure [21, 549; 22, 143]. The renewal was initiated because, as Hicks told many years later, owing to Robbins's intervention "the position which had been reached was quite untenable" [18, 220]. They proposed what had become familiar as the Kaldor-Hicks criterion in order to fill the void left by Robbins by making welfare judgments possible without recourse to interpersonal comparisons. With his elaboration of Kaldor's solution Hicks in particular presented a well-thought-out alternative, thus fulfilling a necessary condition for the demise Aslanbeigui tries to explain.

The diverse contributions of Robbins and Hicks to this outcome were a portent of their future attitudes. The former stayed aloof from the further development of the Paretian theory and the discussions it elicited, referring to it only incidentally. Once he observed that he had always thought the compensation principle "a very helpful idea," though not likely to be "very helpful in practice" [40, 110]. This approval, as far as it went, waned over the years. He came close to disowning his unintended offspring when he spoke of "the somewhat sterile and system-bound Paretian constructions," which he linked with the "pathbreaking" Hicks-Allen paper on ordinalism, apparently forgetting his own share in its inception [42, 130]. As a parting-shot he delivered an unfavorable verdict on the Pareto criterion, characterized as "clearly a judgment of value," and particularly on the compensation principle on the ground that, in order to fulfil the Pareto condition, compensation must actually be paid, which would entail serious theoretical and practical difficulties[43, 5-6].

There are some ambiguities in the way Hicks's thought on the Paretian theory evolved. He was not a fervent practitioner or expositor; it did not become one of the major "Hicksian themes" [9]. Some extensions came shortly after his laying of the "foundations," such as the famous measures of the consumer surplus, which are clearly relevant to the subject [18, 100- 101] and, as his "most original contribution" [6, 526], the controversial application of the compensation principle to national income in the first paper on its valuation. When in 1958 he developed a new complicated explanation of the "Great Discovery of the New Welfare Economics," he admitted that its initiators "were indeed over-confident," but maintained that they had made an advance [18, 168 ff.].

He re-examined the Paretian method in the 1975 essay quoted in section III[18, ch. 10], which has been seen as "a statement of his mature views on the subject" [5, 643]. Rather surprisingly, he argued that what used to be called the new welfare economics "was passed into history" and that "its fate has been very similar" to that of its predecessor [18, 221]. This obituary is less alarming than it sounds; it soon appears that it only concerns the overrated normative significance of Pareto optimality and particularly the compensation principle. As other allusions indicate, Hicks did not intend to deny the analytical validity of the Paretian allocation theory of which he remarked that there "is nothing specially normative about it" [18, 228], a striking difference from Robbins's interpretation (which is the most common one).

Its incorporation in the Pigovian frame Hicks advocated implied that it lost its independent importance; it was reduced to "no more than a part of the theory of Economic Growth" [18, 228]. But this left the theory unimpaired on its own terms. Six years later Hicks declared, looking back to his renowned 1939 article: "I do not retreat from anything said in this paper about the Compensation Test" [18, 59]. Concurrently he defended it against the Scitovsky paradox [18, 183 ff., XIII-IV, XVII]. It has justly been observed that he considered suchlike objections "as fairly unimportant qualifications of the original idea" [5, 643]. Overall his judgment on the Paretian theory remained positive.(10) Therefore regarding this issue, the former allies drifted apart.

VI. Concluding Remarks

While Robbins's destructive performance appears to be not much to Aslanbeigui's liking, she quotes with agreement his depreciation of the Paretian theory. On the other hand she praises Pigou's "nontrivial welfare criterion which deals with issues concerning both equity and efficiency" [2, 616]. This may be so, but even if interpersonal comparisons are allowed, it is not free from difficulties [8, 111 ff.]. If the commendation is meant to imply that Pareto optimality, limited to efficiency, is a trivial criterion, she overlooks, like Robbins, that despite its limitations it has proved eminently fruitful for dealing with a wide and regularly expanding range of allocation problems, not to speak of Rawls's theory of fairness [35, 68 ff.]. It is equally appropriate and a bit ironic that its usefulness could be pointed out as a tribute to Robbins[3, 22].

Moreover, the exclusion of distribution has not prevented Paretians from tackling the problems of equity and fairness with the implements of economic theory, as exemplified by Lerner, Meade and Baumol, to name only some of the greatest. But even suchlike endeavors cannot restore the ruined edifice Aslanbeigui commemorates with some nostalgia.

Appendix: "Equilibrium Is Just Equilibrium"

A misunderstanding, unconnected with the four attacks but relating to Hicks and Robbins, deserves to be cleared up. Aslanbeigui [2, 618) quotes a comment of Hicks on Robbins's dictum "Equilibrium is just equilibrium" [36, 143]. He interprets this as indicating that the "Robbins Circle" at the LSE in the early thirties was not "very interested in the welfare characteristics of that equilibrium"[19, 3]. One does not lightly contradict Hicks, himself a member of the "circle," but he really misread the sentence. The "innocent remark," as Robbins called it later [38, 346], is no more than an example of his urge to banish normative propositions from economics. He argued, to render it somewhat freely, that if equilibrium prices are a condition for optimal consumer satisfaction, this does not by itself provide a normative conclusion or "ethical sanction." Economics cannot decide that an increase in satisfaction is "socially obligatory" [36, 142]. Thus, in contrast with what Aslanbeigui seems to assume, the aphorism could not logically reflect a penchant for the free market. Actually Robbins's further explanation warns against deducing such a judgment from the properties of equilibrium prices.

(1.) An article on the subject, which appeared at about the same time as Aslanbeigui's, looks at it from an altogether different angle. It focuses more on Marshall than on Pigou; Hicks and Robbins do not figure in it at all, and the question of interpersonal comparability is ignored. Yet it arrives at a similar conclusion: "By 1940 the demise of Marshallian applied welfare economics was almost complete" [47, 243]. Like Aslanbeigui, but for other reasons, the author does not regard the reversal as an unmixed boon. (2.) This was mentioned only once by Hicks, much later[11, 6]. (3.) See also O'Brien [27, 88; 28, 167] on Robbins's hostility to aggregation. (4.) He does not refer to the term "national dividend" (used by Pigou), though Aslanbcigui may give the contrary impression. (5.) Taking Harrod as an example, she alludes to economists who, demurring at Robbins's negative contention, "warned against the sterility of a value-free economics." Harrod defended, however, the possibility of interpersonal utility comparisons not in a normative, but in a factual sense [12, 396]. (6.) It is riddling why he did not also borrow that view from Pareto. (7.) The parallel drawn by Hicks in 1950 [20, 343 ff.] between Robbins and Myrdal's prior argument, first published in Sweden in 1929, is noteworthy. According to Hicks, the German translation of his book, which appeared in the same year as Robbins's Essay (1932), "had a wide influence"; it is not referred to in Robbins's second edition. (8.) Aslanbeigui argues that the support Robbins's view found was perhaps due to the influence of logical positivism. She gives no evidence for this supposition, which seems highly questionable. At any rate, neither Hicks and Robbins nor Myrdal were adherents of this philosophy. (9.) The Pareto Optimum had already been clearly defined by Lerner in 1934[23, 13]. (10.) Accordingly, "the apparent asymmetry between his earlier and later works" [26, 108] and Hicks's tendency "to fall out with his earlier work" [34, 100] are not conspicuous here.


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Title Annotation:response to Nahid Aslanbeigui, Southern Economic Journal, p. 616, January 1990
Author:Hennipman, Pieter
Publication:Southern Economic Journal
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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The effects of import quotas on national welfare: does money matter?
Public goods production, nontraded goods and trade restrictions.
A time series analysis of the effect of welfare benefits on earnings.

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