How an Astounding New Right-Wing Lie About the Economy Was Born
Continued from previous page
A Lie Is Born
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 claim – and Daniel Halper and others parrot – the 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 reportthey got back from CRS ( PDF) – which identified four more programs than Rector had – gave 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.”