The Welfare Bogeyman Resurrected

The Welfare Bogeyman Ressurected by Cato Institute and Senator Jeff Sessions

cato instituteOnce upon a time, conservative Republicans only had to say the word “welfare” to get a big chunk of America riled up and ready to do their bidding. With Welfare Reform in 1996, that juicy piece of political meat faded from the menu. In most Republican eateries, the old staple was replaced by a sampling platter of God, gays, guns, socialism, and other soft-boiled meats.

But the taste for some good Welfare Tartar never fell out of favor in the Ego Hill area of town, where Ayn Rand Boulevard intersects Charles Koch Circle. And a funny thing happened after the 2012 election demonstrated that the soft-boiled sampling platter might be losing its appeal: conservative Republicans dragged out their recipe book and began to reinvent the old Welfare Tartar standard.
This actually began in April of this year when the Cato Institute’s Michael D. Tanner published a policy analysis titled “The American Welfare State: How We Spend Nearly $1 Trillion a Year Fighting Poverty–And Fail.”[1]

That report rounded up a bunch of federal programs the author deemed to be welfare programs and divided the total costs of all the programs by the number of people below the official poverty line. Not, mind you, the number of people receiving benefits, but the number of people who fall below the official poverty line: a small portion of the people receiving benefits. In other words, Mr. Tanner’s most sensational conclusion is meaningless.

Tanner himself acknowledges that “At least 106 million Americans receive benefits from one or more of these programs.” Why divide the cost of programs serving over 100 million people by the small segment of those recipients who happen to fall below the poverty line? Well, this sleight of hand lets Tanner exclaim that federal spending on welfare totals”[f]or a typi¬cal poor family of three…more than $44,500″ which rises to “$61,830 per poor family of three” if you add in state spending. That’s impressively sensational for a totally meaningless statement.

He never says how many people are below the poverty line, but simply dividing his stated $668.2 billion total federal cost by his $44,500 figure “per poor person” gives you a hair over 15 million people who fall below the official poverty line.
I didn’t hear much mention of this report until after the election. Now, staring at an election loss that clearly rattled them, and apparent recognition by a sizable portion of the populace that income taxes just might be too low, many conservative commentators have latched onto the Cato report to prop up what used to be their “old reliable” claims about welfare. There is a growing echo of the shout that “we are spending outrageous sums of money on welfare programs.”
Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of the Senate Budget Committee recently issued a press release with the dramatic headline “Welfare Spending The Largest Item In The Federal Budget.”[2]

It comes with a neat little meaningless chart headlined “Total Welfare Spending Equates To $168 Per Day For Every Household In Poverty.”[3]

Shortly thereafter, Daniel Halper’s blog for the reliably ditto-headed Weekly Standard echoed the Senate Republican claims with a piece titled “Welfare Spending Equates to $168 Per Day for Every Household in Poverty.”[4]

Halper didn’t bother to change a word of the meaningless headline from Mr. Sessions.
It’s all over the right wing web now, from Town Hall to Power Line and well beyond, with reader comments expressing outrage and astonishment at the supposed fact that “poor people” are being given benefits equal to more than the median income in America! Of course no one has caught on to, or pointed out, the fact that the figures “per poor person” are meaningless.

Noticeably lacking in Senator Sessions’ carefully crafted misinformation, and in all its echoes on the web, is any attempt to inform readers that the cost of programs to help the poor would obviously go up when the number of poor goes up. Yes, my Senate Republican friends, there will be more food stamp recipients when there are more people who cannot afford food without the stamps. Where is the outrage that more than 40 million people need food stamps? Where is the outrage that more than 15 million Americans live with incomes below the horribly underestimated poverty thresholds of $11,170 for one person, $15,130 for two and $19,090 for three?

Also noticeably lacking is any attempt to compile a list of tax breaks handed out to countless corporations. How many billions in foregone revenues, which just might have paid all or most of the cost of these social programs? That seems like a good question to me, but apparently not to Senator Sessions or Mr. Tanner at the Cato Institute.
I believe this is what class war really looks like. In fact, I believe I can smell just the faintest hint of blood.

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About the Author

Lee Russ
Former legal editor and author of a range of stuff from fiction and poetry to legal texts. Very tired of what passes for reality and reason in the conservative realm.