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How an Astounding New Right-Wing Lie About the Economy Was Born

Insenstivity to human plight taken to new extremes.

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Many Of These Programs Aren't “'Welfare'

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 grants – from 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  Americorps – which trains and places teachers in low-income communities – and  another that gives rural communities assistance upgrading their water and sewage systems.

Some of These Programs Aren't Means-Tested and Some Benefits Go to People Who Aren't Poor

I asked an economist and budget expert – who didn't want to be named – how 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.”

Intentionally Misleading

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 services – or programs that fund community health centers and improvements in public works – and 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.

 
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