Numbers Before Politics

Dean Baker

Since last autumn’s Repub­li­can vic­to­ry, pro­gres­sives have engaged in con­sid­er­able soul search­ing. The most basic ques­tion has been: Why do so many peo­ple sup­port con­ser­v­a­tive poli­cies that hurt them? For an impor­tant sub­set of these poli­cies, the answer is sim­ple: They don’t know the numbers.

Pub­lic opin­ion polls con­sis­tent­ly show that peo­ple huge­ly over­es­ti­mate the por­tion of pub­lic spend­ing that goes to pro­grams like wel­fare or for­eign aid. For exam­ple, a Kaiser poll from the mid-’90s found that 40 per­cent of respon­dents ranked wel­fare as one of the two largest items in the fed­er­al bud­get, and 40 per­cent put for­eign aid in this cat­e­go­ry. At the time, the two largest items in the fed­er­al bud­get were Social Secu­ri­ty at 22 per­cent and mil­i­tary spend­ing at 18 per­cent. The share of the bud­get going to Aid for Fam­i­lies with Depen­dent Chil­dren, the core wel­fare pro­gram, was less than 1 per­cent. Adding in food stamps, hous­ing sub­si­dies and oth­er low-income pro­grams could push this fig­ure close to 4 per­cent. Less than 0.5 per­cent of the bud­get went for any­thing remote­ly resem­bling for­eign aid. 

The extent of this mis­in­for­ma­tion is impor­tant. If a per­son believes that 25 per­cent of the bud­get is already going to wel­fare, then she is like­ly to have a very dif­fer­ent atti­tude toward fur­ther spend­ing than if she knew the real num­bers. She would believe that wel­fare spend­ing is already impos­ing a sub­stan­tial tax bur­den — one that must have a real effect on the liv­ing stan­dards of many mid­dle income families. 

Fur­ther­more, any rea­son­able per­son who believes that such a large por­tion of the fed­er­al bud­get is already going to wel­fare might also won­der how incre­men­tal increas­es in this spend­ing would have any real effect. In oth­er words, if the Unit­ed States has made so lit­tle progress in alle­vi­at­ing pover­ty after spend­ing so much, why would anoth­er $2 bil­lion for child care or $800 mil­lion for hous­ing sub­si­dies make a dif­fer­ence? Alter­na­tive­ly, if mas­sive spend­ing has lit­tle impact, how much harm could be caused by mod­est cut­backs, or a slow­er rate of growth,” as the Bush admin­is­tra­tion would frame the issue.

Giv­en the fun­da­men­tal igno­rance about the scale of these social pro­grams, it is remark­able that they enjoy as much sup­port as they do.

Such gross­ly dis­tort­ed views of the bud­get are not inevitable. Part of the prob­lem may be attrib­ut­able to ide­ol­o­gy. For exam­ple, some peo­ple may sim­ply want to believe that wel­fare pro­grams take up the bulk of the bud­get regard­less of the facts. Part of the con­fu­sion is also attrib­ut­able to right-wing politi­cians who fos­ter such mis­con­cep­tions. Ronald Rea­gan used to talk about the pain felt by hard­work­ing fam­i­lies who had to pay for their gro­ceries while see­ing lazy wel­fare cheats in front of them in the check­out line, buy­ing expen­sive cuts of meat with food stamps. But the main rea­son for pub­lic igno­rance on the size of social pro­gram spend­ing is sim­ply how the media reports bud­get numbers.

For exam­ple, when the New York Times dis­cussed the polit­i­cal bat­tle over the reau­tho­riza­tion of the Tem­po­rary Assis­tance for Needy Fam­i­lies (TANF) bill last sum­mer, it report­ed that the cur­rent bud­get pro­vid­ed $16.5 bil­lion dol­lars for TANF. This num­ber pro­vid­ed almost no infor­ma­tion what­so­ev­er. Only a small group of wonks is suf­fi­cient­ly famil­iar with the bud­get to rec­og­nize the sig­nif­i­cance of this lev­el of spend­ing. For the vast major­i­ty of peo­ple, $16 bil­lion is sim­ply a very large num­ber, as would be $160 bil­lion or even $1.6 bil­lion. The prob­lem is made worse when sto­ries present bud­get num­bers that refer to 5- or 10-year totals, often with­out even mak­ing this fact clear.

Report­ing on the bud­get in ways that actu­al­ly con­vey infor­ma­tion is not rock­et sci­ence. The most obvi­ous way is to sim­ply express spend­ing and tax items as a share of the total bud­get. For exam­ple, the $16 bil­lion TANF bill can be described as 0.6 per­cent of fed­er­al spend­ing; the $5 bil­lion for­eign aid appro­pri­a­tion can be referred to as 0.2 per­cent of fed­er­al spend­ing. This would imme­di­ate­ly inform read­ers and lis­ten­ers of the con­text and rel­a­tive impor­tance of this item in the budget.

Essen­tial­ly, this is just a ques­tion of good jour­nal­ism. News sto­ries about the bud­get should pro­vide as much per­spec­tive as pos­si­ble. These top­ics can­not jus­ti­fi­ably be approached in any oth­er way. As Daniel Okrent, the pub­lic edi­tor of the New York Times, wrote in a recent column,“numbers with­out con­text, espe­cial­ly large ones with many zeros trail­ing behind, are about as intel­li­gi­ble as vow­els with­out consonants.” 

In short, a sim­ple, and winnable, agen­da item for pro­gres­sives should be to con­vince media out­lets to prac­tice good jour­nal­ism when they cov­er nation­al or state bud­gets. All but the most closed-mind­ed edi­tors and pro­duc­ers should be open to the argu­ment that the goal of bud­get report­ing is to con­vey information.

Hag­gling over the way in which bud­get num­bers are report­ed may seem like a rather indi­rect approach — - to increas­ing pub­lic fund­ing for child care or nutri­tion pro­grams. But sus­tain­ing pub­lic sup­port for any social spend­ing will always be an uphill strug­gle as long as the pub­lic is so huge­ly misinformed.

Pro­gres­sives will have to con­front many oth­er impor­tant ques­tions on fram­ing and val­ues, but this is a sim­ple ques­tion of get­ting the num­bers right. And here the bat­tle lines are not drawn between left and right, but between hon­est and dishonest. 

Dean Bak­er is co-direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Eco­nom­ic and Pol­i­cy Research and co-author of Social Secu­ri­ty: The Pho­ny Cri­sis (Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press, 2000).
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