How an Astounding New Right-Wing Lie About the Economy Was Born
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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: “Welfare 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.
A Big Math Problem
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.