No Demagoguery Needed

At the end of last week, conservative news media reported on Census Bureau data showing that there were more people on welfare in the United States than there were people with full time jobs at the end of 2011. This is alarming news, but there is also a temptation to make it even more alarming by twisting the numbers to exaggerate the extent that Americans (which in the Census includes non-citizens who simply live in the U.S.) are dependent on government largesse. Terence P. Jeffrey, writing for CNS News, let the facts speak for themselves. He properly cited the Census definition of "means tested benefits" which equate with the popular understanding of welfare programs that transfer goods, services and income to the poor.

According to the Census data cited by Jeffrey, "in the fourth quarter of 2011 were 82,457,000 people in households receiving Medicaid, 49,073,000 beneficiaries of food stamps, 20,223,000 on Supplemental Security Income, 23,228,000 in the Women, Infants and Children program, 13,433,000 in public or subsidized rental housing, and 5,854,000 in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Also among the 108,592,000 means-tested benefit recipients counted by the Census Bureau were people getting free or reduced-price lunch or breakfast, state-administered supplemental security income and means-tested veterans pensions." In comparison, 101,716,000 people worked full-time in 2011.

Neither Jeffrey nor the Census Bureau included in this survey of major welfare programs Social Security, Medicare, standard veteran's benefits, or unemployment benefits. These last mentioned programs should not be considered "welfare" because the recipients qualify for them on other grounds than poverty. While Jeffrey did mention these other programs, giving the number of people in them and a total for all government programs, he did so at the end of his story.

In contrast, Newsmax led with the aggregate figure to hype the headline "Half of Americans Get Government Benefits." Clumping all programs together does yield a figure of 49.1% of households receiving something from the Federal government. But some of those benefits are apples and some are oranges, and it only makes political sense to talk about the rotten apples. Mitt Romney made the mistake of not disaggregating the numbers in his infamous rant about how 47% of Americans support President Obama because they "are dependent upon government" and "believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it." This was arguably the oratorical error that most doomed his presidential campaign.

Most people on Social Security and Medicare, for example, do not consider themselves on "welfare" nor should they. They have paid taxes into the system all their lives and expect to get money back at retirement. They have earned these benefits in a way that those in the "means-tested" programs have not. Veterans are owed benefits because they risked their lives -- and often paid a price in their health -- in defense of their country. Veterans and the retired, who have seen more of the real world that the average voter, tend to support conservatives at the polls. It is both unjust and foolish to tar them with the welfare brush.

Unemployment compensation is meant to provide temporary and partial wage replacement to those who lose their jobs for reasons that are beyond their control, such as recessions. It also has a public policy aspect as an "automatic stabilizer" during economic downturns. Even with high unemployment in 2011 (8.8% average) and extended eligibility, there were only 5,098,000 people receiving unemployment benefits in the year's last quarter; a number dwarfed by the welfare figures.

According to the Census, 30.3% of households receive some sort of "means-tested" welfare benefits. That number is bad enough and needs no help from demagogues. Indeed, to be more credible in making the point that current policy is spending (and borrowing) too much on helping people adapt to the recession rather than recovery from it, some further nuances are needed. The direct comparison of welfare recipients and full-time workers has a meaning in terms of the ability of workers to pay enough in taxes to support such a large welfare class. However, the raw number is misleading in the sense that the Census counted as recipients "anyone residing in a household in which one or more people received benefits from the program." That number includes children who would not be expected to hold full-time jobs. It is not an adult-to-adult comparison.

Another factor that needs to taken into account is that a majority of Medicaid benefits go to the elderly and disabled, not the young and able-bodied who are sitting idle on the dole. This balance will, however, have to be watched as Obamacare goes into effect, as Medicaid may become a refuge from the insurance exchanges.

There are other useful figures from the same Census report that did not make the CNS or Newsmax stories. The government figures were broken down by race. While 20.5% of White and 27.9% of Asian households receive some form of means-tested benefits, 50.9% of Black households and 53.3% of Hispanic households receive welfare assistance. The figure for Hispanic households should dispel any notions that the Republican Party will gain any advantage from immigration reforms that increase the size of this voting bloc. Communities with a high dependence on welfare will vote for the party that promises to keep the benefits flowing. There is a reason every Democrat in Congress supports comprehensive immigration reform that would open a path to the voting booth to those who came into the country illegally.

And for those in the business world (or who look to the business world for guidance) who think "cheap labor" is truly inexpensive, the Census figures show again that taxpayers subsidize the "working poor" who do not earn subsistence incomes. Research done at the Heritage Foundation, particularly by Robert Rector, successfully countered the propaganda of the Chamber of Commerce on this point the last time immigration reform was pending, and should do so again.

The truth is out there. How conservatives present it will determine where the public thinks it is credible or not. Advocates must be wary of giving critics easy points to dispute that can cloud the real issues at stake.


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