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Everyone's a Queen

The Republicans' rapidly expanding definition of welfare

Illustration by Jim Stoten

Did you know that the federal government spends more money on welfare than it does on Social Security, or Medicare, or the military? Me neither, perhaps because it isn’t true. It’s the kind of hooey that the crankier, less-informed sort of conservative is all too ready to believe. Yet the highest-ranking Republican on the Senate budget committee has lately been spreading this meme, and a variation is included in Representative Paul Ryan’s proposed budget. It’s part of a larger bait-and-switch that Republicans have been playing against Democrats, making it harder for both parties to agree on necessary spending cuts that don’t harm those in need.

The budget committee poobah is Senator Jeff Sessions. In October, Sessions put out a press release under the headline “Welfare Spending the Largest Item in the Federal Budget,” a claim repeated uncritically by Eric Bolling on “The Five,” a Fox News chat show, and on sites such as National Review and Human Events. An urban myth was born.

“Welfare” is commonly understood to refer to Temporary Assistance For Needy Families (TANF), the block grant program that replaced Aid To Families With Dependent Children under the 1996 welfare-reform law. The federal government spends about $18 billion per year on TANF. Sometimes “welfare” is also understood to mean food stamps. The federal government spends $78 billion per year on food stamps. Combined cost: $96 billion. Annual expenditures on Social Security ($731 billion), Medicare ($486 billion), and defense ($718 billion) are each greater by a factor of five or more. (Throughout this column I’m using data for fiscal year 2011, the most recent available.)

Is Sessions a math dunce? No, he just subscribes to an unrecognizably maximalist definition of “welfare,” one that includes every single federal program that’s means-tested. He includes Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, usually described as health care programs, which account for nearly half his total. He also includes Pell grants, job training programs, and various other functions that are “welfare” in roughly the same sense that all government spending is “socialism.” By stretching welfare’s meaning until it has almost none, Sessions is able to calculate the total welfare tab not at an underwhelming $96 billion, but at $746 billion, which is indeed more than the tab for Social Security, or Medicare, or defense. Then he adds in the state-funded part of these programs so he can say the total exceeds $1 trillion.

As recently as 2008, the federal tab was one-quarter lower. What happened? Sessions blames the Obama administration for encouraging too much participation, but the obvious problem is the economy. The Great Recession and weak recovery were a catastrophe for low-income people, making it necessary for the government to provide additional assistance, mainly through the 2009 stimulus.

“Government spends roughly $1 trillion on anti-poverty programs,” Ryan’s latest budget document says. “Yet poverty rates are the highest in a generation.” The implication is that anti-poverty programs fail to alleviate, and may even worsen, poverty. But that gets causality exactly backward. Poverty didn’t go up because government spent $1 trillion. Government spent $1 trillion because the poverty rate went up. When you include noncash government benefits (as official poverty rate calculations do not), poverty went up less, which was precisely the objective.

If we can agree, even grudgingly, that America needs a national government, then it’s going to spend money on someone. Allocating it to people who need it is surely more efficient than allocating it to people who may not. But the U.S. government mostly does the opposite. Sessions’s padded welfare tab is still much smaller than the costs of Social Security and Medicare combined. Excessive spending on these two programs—open to all regardless of income—goes a long way toward explaining how the deficit got so big.

Republicans know that Medicare, Social Security, and defense are where the big spending cuts will have to be. They account, after all, for more than half the federal budget. To the extent that rendering Medicare and Social Security solvent will require benefit cuts, the best and fairest methods are income-contingent—raising premiums for higher-income Medicare recipients (as President Obama proposes) and lowering benefits for higher-income Social Security recipients. Both approaches enjoy strong support from congressional Republicans, and bully to them for favoring them. House and Senate Democrats ought to be bolder in supporting them, too. Part of the reason they hesitate is sheer political cowardice. But Democrats also worry that the more efficiently Medicare and Social Security target those who most need them, the more politically vulnerable these programs will become. With the GOP jamming every means-tested program under the “welfare” rubric to decry a trumped-up epidemic of dependency, this isn’t an abstract fear. Democrats would be fools not to suspect that, for Republicans, reform is a prelude to elimination (or at least drastic reduction).

“The core welfare state has expanded dramatically since reform allegedly ‘ended welfare’ in the mid-1990s.” This revisionist history is what Robert Rector—a research fellow with the conservative Heritage Foundation who favors the same histrionic welfare definition as Sessions—told the House budget committee last May. Never mind that the common worry that long-term cash benefits will breed welfare dependency is inapplicable to most of these other low-income programs. Medicaid recipients don’t get hooked on heart bypass surgery. Pell grant recipients don’t get hooked on midterm exams.

Republicans condemn all lower-income programs as welfare because they’re kind of welfare-dependent themselves. After the 1996 reform ended “welfare as we know it” by imposing time limits on cash assistance, Republicans lost a campaign theme they’d come to rely on. They were like a dog chasing a car that suddenly stopped. So they defined welfare down. They began by shifting their ire to food stamps; they experimented with redirecting it to unemployment benefits; and eventually they simply pathologized all means-tested benefits, even though most had never particularly troubled them before. The more Republicans can persuade Democrats to accept needed income-contingent reforms to Medicare and Social Security, the more they can build support to eliminate these “welfare” programs, too. I don’t know how conscious this bait-and-switch is, but does that even matter? The GOP is dominated by ideologues whose every reflex is to shrink government as much as possible.

Why can’t Republicans let go of the welfare issue? The answer, I’m afraid, isn’t nice. For nearly half a century, the party has derived at least some of its appeal by scapegoating the poor as dusky, lazy good-for-nothings undeserving of your tax dollars. Today’s Republicans continue that tradition by inviting whiter and more affluent Medicare and Social Security recipients to feel superior to the welfare hordes (even as they edge toward trimming their benefits). Even Ronald Reagan paid lip service to the “social safety net.” But in today’s GOP, the only reason to mention that net is to suggest we cut there first.