The GOP’s 1 Trillion Dollar Lie

How a right-wing whopper about the cost of welfare was born.

Joshua Holland, AlterNet

'You should never be too prideful to ask for assistance,' said Olivia Hernandez as she and her family sought federal aid after their Texas apartment burned down in October 2011. The GOP claims that such 'welfare' costs the government $168 per family each day, but the reality is closer to $25. (USDA/Flickr/Creative Commons)

Reprint­ed with per­mis­sion from Alter­Net.

Given that the United States has one of the weakest social safety nets in the world, it's obvious we're not spending more on each family in poverty than the median income, defense, Social Security and Medicare.

There’s a new eco­nom­ic myth that’s now being ampli­fied by the con­ser­v­a­tive media. It demo­nizes vital pub­lic ser­vices and sug­gests that the poor are doing just fine thanks to the largesse of the coun­try’s mak­ers.” Con­ser­v­a­tives are being told that the Unit­ed States is now spend­ing vast for­tunes com­bat­ting pover­ty — more than we ded­i­cate to nation­al defense, Social Secu­ri­ty and Medicare.

This new spin is notable not for its men­dac­i­ty — although it is com­plete­ly divorced from real­i­ty — but because its ori­gins are eas­i­ly traced, allow­ing us to see how these kinds of dis­tor­tions come to be. This one orig­i­nat­ed with the work of an ana­lyst at the Her­itage Foun­da­tion who is well known for his intel­lec­tu­al dis­hon­esty. It was then picked up by Repub­li­can staffers on Capi­tol Hill, who lent the claim cred­i­bil­i­ty by request­ing a Con­gres­sion­al Research Ser­vice report on the analy­sis. They then fur­ther dis­tort­ed the nar­ra­tive before dis­trib­ut­ing it to friend­ly writ­ers at con­ser­v­a­tive media out­lets, who duti­ful­ly report­ed the false­hood. It will soon become con­ven­tion­al wis­dom on the Right, fur­ther dis­tort­ing con­ser­v­a­tives’ view of tax­es and spending.

Sev­er­al con­ser­v­a­tive out­lets had the sto­ry before Daniel Halper at the Week­ly Stan­dard, but his piece is the one that’s been cit­ed by hun­dreds of con­ser­v­a­tive blogs, right-wing radio talk­ers and Fox News. Halper, cit­ing the minor­i­ty side of the Sen­ate Bud­get Com­mit­tee,“ framed the sto­ry like this: “[W]elfare spend­ing per day per house­hold in pover­ty is $168, which is high­er than the $137 medi­an income per day. When bro­ken down per hour, wel­fare spend­ing per hour per house­hold in pover­ty is $30.60, which is high­er than the $25.03 medi­an income per hour.”

For fis­cal year 2011, CRS iden­ti­fied rough­ly 80 over­lap­ping fed­er­al means-test­ed wel­fare pro­grams that togeth­er rep­re­sent­ed the sin­gle largest bud­get item in 2011 — more than the nation spends on Social Secu­ri­ty, Medicare, or nation­al defense. The total amount spent on these fed­er­al pro­grams, when tak­en togeth­er with approx­i­mate­ly $280 bil­lion in state con­tri­bu­tions, amount­ed to rough­ly $1 trillion.

Com­mon sense should tell you that this is a ridicu­lous claim. Giv­en that the Unit­ed States has one of the weak­est social safe­ty nets in the world, it’s pret­ty obvi­ous that we’re not spend­ing more on each fam­i­ly in pover­ty than the medi­an income — or more on the poor than we spend on defense, Social Secu­ri­ty and Medicare. But let’s dig into the details.

The first prob­lem with this claim is math­e­mat­i­cal rather than ide­o­log­i­cal. The sto­ry is that we spend $168 per day for each fam­i­ly in pover­ty. But the eli­gi­bil­i­ty cut-offs for most of the 80 or so pro­grams iden­ti­fied by Sen­ate Repub­li­cans are high­er than the pover­ty line; in many cas­es, sig­nif­i­cant­ly higher.

Giv­en that there are around 600 dif­fer­ent eli­gi­bil­i­ty require­ments for these pro­grams, most deter­mined by the states, it’s dif­fi­cult to cal­cu­late an aver­age with­out a staff. But in Col­orado, which I chose because it tends to be ide­o­log­i­cal­ly mid­dle-of-the-road, the aver­age eli­gi­bil­i­ty cut-off for the 10 means-test­ed fed­er­al ben­e­fits list­ed here is $18,075, or 62 per­cent above the fed­er­al pover­ty line.

The myth can be expressed math­e­mat­i­cal­ly like this: Total Spend­ing On Welfare”/Families in pover­ty = $168 per day. But these ser­vices ben­e­fit many more peo­ple than those strug­gling under the pover­ty line — one may as well divide those costs by the total num­ber of rab­bits or blue cars in the U.S.

The real­i­ty, expressed math­e­mat­i­cal­ly, is: Total Spend­ing On Welfare”/Those who receive ben­e­fits = $24.77 per day. That’s a lot less than $168.

Mer­ri­am-Web­ster’s dic­tio­nary defines wel­fare” like this:

a: aid in the form of mon­ey or neces­si­ties for those in need

b: an agency or pro­gram through which such aid is distributed

But that def­i­n­i­tion rep­re­sents only a small share of the pro­grams iden­ti­fied by the Repub­li­can staffers. Many, or most, are things no rea­son­able per­son would ever call wel­fare.” There’s aid to com­mu­ni­ties recov­er­ing from nat­ur­al dis­as­ters; a num­ber of job train­ing pro­grams; edu­ca­tion grantsfrom Head Start for pre-school­ers to Pell Grants for low-income col­lege stu­dents; mon­ey to enforce child sup­port orders; pro­grams that improve teach­ers’ skills; and even screen­ing pro­grams to detect breast and cer­vi­cal can­cer in low-income communities.

Halper writes that the pro­grams pro­vide direct or indi­rect finan­cial sup­port,” but indi­rect” is a key sleight-of-hand. A num­ber of the pro­grams iden­ti­fied by the Repub­li­can staffers pro­vide mon­ey to insti­tu­tions and com­mu­ni­ties rather than ind­vid­u­als in need. Includ­ed is a pro­gram that gives mon­ey to eli­gi­ble col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties to strength­en their man­age­ment and fis­cal oper­a­tions,” fund­ing for Ameri­corpswhich trains and places teach­ers in low-income com­mu­ni­tiesand anoth­er that gives rur­al com­mu­ni­ties assis­tance upgrad­ing their water and sewage systems.

I asked an econ­o­mist and bud­get expertwho did­n’t want to be namedhow a grant for com­mu­ni­ty projects can be con­sid­ered means-test­ed.” He explained that they aren’t. Instead, they’re award­ed accord­ing to a vari­ety of con­sid­er­a­tions, includ­ing the medi­an income of a juris­dic­tion’s res­i­dents.” He added: If you want to call that means-test­ing you are wel­come to do so, since in Amer­i­ca we are all enti­tled to our own definitions.”

The impor­tant take­away here is that many of the pro­grams that serve these com­mu­ni­ties pro­vide ben­e­fits to peo­ple who aren’t poor. When the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment helps a rur­al com­mu­ni­ty upgrade its water sys­tem, it may well help a lot of poor peo­ple, but clean water will come out of the taps of every­one in that com­mu­ni­ty, rich, poor or some­where in between. Aid to uni­ver­si­ties that serve a lot of low-income stu­dents will also help that uni­ver­si­ty’s mid­dle-income stu­dents. And when you help a town with a lot of low-income res­i­dents rebuild after a nat­ur­al dis­as­ter, the rich­est per­son in town will also benefit.

Anoth­er exam­ple: accord­ing to the Con­gres­sion­al Research Ser­vice, a num­ber of the edu­ca­tion pro­grams includ­ed on the list result in stu­dents from rel­a­tive­ly well-off fam­i­lies receiv­ing assis­tance, as there is no absolute income ceil­ing on eligibility.”

Fifty years of polit­i­cal sci­ence tells us that Amer­i­cans hold a very favor­able view of most pro­grams that help the poor, espe­cial­ly edu­ca­tion­al and job train­ing pro­grams which, in the­o­ry at least, help them lift them­selves out of pover­ty. But there is one excep­tion: Amer­i­cans don’t like wel­fare.”

In his clas­sic book, Why Amer­i­cans Hate Wel­fare, soci­ol­o­gist Mar­tin Gilens found that sig­nif­i­cant majori­ties of Amer­i­cans told poll­sters that they want­ed to increase pub­lic spend­ing to fight pover­ty at the same time that majori­ties said they were opposed to wel­fare. Gilens con­clud­ed that this dis­con­nect was dri­ven by a wide­spread belief that most wel­fare recip­i­ents don’t real­ly need it,” and by racial ani­mus – per­cep­tions that wel­fare recip­i­ents are unde­serv­ing and blacks are lazy.”

This is all very well under­stood by every­one who had a hand in cre­at­ing and ampli­fy­ing this new false­hood. If you take pro­grams that offer low-income peo­ple job train­ing or adult lit­er­a­cy or legal ser­vicesor pro­grams that fund com­mu­ni­ty health cen­ters and improve­ments in pub­lic worksand call them wel­fare,” you can instant­ly turn very pop­u­lar pro­grams into some­thing else: hand­outs for the unde­serv­ing” poor. And that’s just what they’re try­ing to do.

A great deal of con­ser­v­a­tive eco­nom­ic views are shaped by myths. Think about the fact-free nar­ra­tive that slash­ing tax rates for the wealthy will result in more rev­enues com­ing into the gov­ern­men­t’s cof­fers, the com­mon claim that half of the coun­try pays no tax­es, or the idea that increas­ing domes­tic oil pro­duc­tion can low­er glob­al oil prices enough to bring down the price of a gal­lon of gas here at home.

So it will be with the idea that the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment spends a tril­lion on wel­fare.” But this par­tic­u­lar myth is inter­est­ing in that we can trace its prove­nance, see where it came from, how it was ampli­fied, and how it was shaped along the way.

In May, Robert Rec­tor, the Her­itage Foun­da­tion’s senior research fel­low on fam­i­ly and wel­fare stud­ies,” tes­ti­fied before the House Bud­get Com­mit­tee. He iden­ti­fied 79 of what he described as means-test­ed wel­fare” pro­grams, with a total price tag of $927 bil­lion (in com­bined costs to the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment and the states).

Who is Robert Rec­tor? He’s an ana­lyst with a long and sto­ried his­to­ry of sug­gest­ing that the poor­est Amer­i­cans are liv­ing quite well. Andy Kroll pro­filed him for Moth­er Jones when it was report­ed that Rec­tor had been the source of Mitt Rom­ney’s uni­ver­sal­ly debunked claim that Oba­ma had gut­ted” the work require­ments of Bill Clin­ton’s wel­fare reforms.”

Rec­tor, wrote Kroll, is a man who holds con­tro­ver­sial, and in some cas­es inac­cu­rate, views of pover­ty and eco­nom­ics. Rec­tor has claimed that pover­ty does­n’t impact chil­dren, that you’re not real­ly poor if you have air con­di­tion­ing or a car, and that the very idea of wel­fare lift­ing Amer­i­cans out of pover­ty is idi­ot­ic.’” In 2011, he ques­tioned the gov­ern­men­t’s asser­tion that more than 30 mil­lion peo­ple were poor by point­ing to dif­fer­ent mod­ern ameni­ties’ they owned. The peo­ple the gov­ern­ment calls poor, he wrote, are not poor in any ordi­nary sense of the term,’ while the real poor are a minor­i­ty with­in the over­all pover­ty population.’”

In call­ing all man­ner of pro­grams wel­fare,” Rec­tor’s tes­ti­mo­ny was intel­lec­tu­al­ly dis­hon­est. But his math was accu­rate. Instead of divid­ing the mon­ey spent on these pro­grams by the num­ber of fam­i­lies liv­ing in pover­ty, Rec­tor not­ed that some means-test­ed assis­tance goes to indi­vid­u­als who are low-income but not poor.”

The result of doing the math right is that, rather than spend­ing $61,320 per year for every fam­i­ly liv­ing under the pover­ty line, as Sen­ate Repub­li­cans claimand Daniel Halper and oth­ers par­rotthe real num­ber is, accord­ing to Rec­tor’s own tes­ti­mo­ny, “$9,040 for each low­er-income Amer­i­can (i.e., per­sons in the low­est-income third of the population).”

Regard­less of the num­ber, at this point the claim was being made only by a Her­itage Foun­da­tion fel­low of dubi­ous dis­tinc­tion. But Rec­tor’s tes­ti­mo­ny before the House Bud­get Com­mit­tee so impressed Jeff Ses­sions’ staff, that they asked the Con­gres­sion­al Research Ser­vice to pre­pare a report exam­in­ing the total cost of pro­grams that help low-income Amer­i­cans, either direct­ly or indirectly.

The report they got back from CRSwhich iden­ti­fied four more pro­grams than Rec­tor hadgave added cred­i­bil­i­ty to Rec­tor’s orig­i­nal claim. But the authors were was care­ful to note that their analy­sis did­n’t look only at wel­fare.” And they not­ed that it includ­ed pro­grams that aren’t in fact means-test­ed at all. Pro­grams were includ­ed, accord­ing to the report, if they (1) had pro­vi­sions that base an individual’s eli­gi­bil­i­ty or pri­or­i­ty for ser­vice on a mea­sure (or proxy) of low or lim­it­ed income; or (2) tar­get resources in some way (e.g., through allo­ca­tion for­mu­las, vari­able match­ing rates) using a mea­sure (or proxy) of low or lim­it­ed income.”

The authors added: A few pro­grams with­out an explic­it low-income pro­vi­sion were includ­ed because either their tar­get pop­u­la­tion is dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly poor or their pur­pose clear­ly indi­cates a pre­sump­tion that par­tic­i­pants will be low-income.”

The CRS report looked only at fed­er­al spend­ing. Jeff Ses­sions’ staff added the states’ con­tri­bu­tions as well as a big lie — iit seems they decid­ed to divide total spend­ing on what they call wel­fare” by the num­ber of fam­i­lies in pover­ty rather than the num­ber of peo­ple who ben­e­fit from these pro­grams, in the process turn­ing $9,000 in spend­ing per house­hold into $61,000.

The CRS report is dat­ed Octo­ber 16. The Nation­al Review ran an item two days lat­er, when Jeff Ses­sions issued a press release, and Fox News ampli­fied the claim two days after that. Both reports men­tioned the total price tag for these pro­grams — close to $1 tril­lion — but nei­ther cit­ed the $168 per day claimed by Ses­sions’ staffers. It was that fram­ing, fea­tured in the head­line of Daniel Halper’s Week­ly Stan­dard piece, that appears to have dri­ven the myth to the larg­er con­ser­v­a­tive media.

The end result is that a lot of Amer­i­cans are woe­ful­ly mis­in­formed about what we spend on anti-pover­ty pro­grams, and what those pro­grams look like. Tra­di­tion­al wel­fare — now known as Tem­po­rary Assis­tance for Needy Fam­i­lies — costs the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment just $16.5 bil­lion, a frac­tion of what’s now claimed by the Right. Accord­ing to the Cen­ter for Bud­get and Pol­i­cy Pri­or­i­ties, even when one uses a very expan­sive def­i­n­i­tion of wel­fare,” only 13 per­cent of the fed­er­al bud­get in 2011, or $466 bil­lion, went to sup­port pro­grams that pro­vide aid (oth­er than health insur­ance or Social Secu­ri­ty ben­e­fits) to indi­vid­u­als and fam­i­lies fac­ing hardship.”

So we have anoth­er gap between what is true” in the con­ser­v­a­tive media bub­ble and the objec­tive facts. In the real world, we spend about $25 per day on the needy. But, accord­ing to Fox News, the fig­ure is $168.

Joshua Hol­land is an edi­tor and senior writer at < a href=“http://www.alternet.org”>AlterNet. He’s the author of The Fif­teen Biggest Lies About the Econ­o­my.
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