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January 13, 2014 11:06 AM Defining “Welfare”

By Ed Kilgore

At Wonkblog yesterday, Mike Konczal makes a point that shouldn’t be lost in the brief debate over poverty policy we had last week in connectoin with the 50th anniversary of LBJ’s launching of the “war on poverty:” conservative demonization of “welfare” as a vast waste of money (a trillion dollars a year!) on the undeserving takes in a lot of territory.

This [trillion dollar] claim says any money mostly spent on the poor is “welfare.” To give you a better sense here, the federal spending breaks down into a couple of broad categories. Only about one-third of it is actually what we think of as “welfare”:
1) Cash and cash-like programs: As Michael Linden of Center for American Progress told me, there are five big programs in the Cato list that are most analogous to what people think of as “welfare”: The refundable part of the Earned Income Tax Credit ($55 billion), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families ($21 billion), Supplemental Security Income ($43.7 billion), food stamps ($75 billion), and housing vouchers ($18 billion) and the Child Tax Credit. All together, that’s around $212 billion dollars.”
2) Health care: This is actually the biggest item on Cato’s list. Medicaid spends $228 billion on the non-elderly population, and children’s health insurance plan takes up another $13.5 billion. This is also roughly a third as well.
3) Opportunity-related programs: These are programs that are broadly related to opportunities, mostly in education or job-training. So you have things like Title 1 grants ($14 billion) and Head Start ($7.1 billion) in this category. But as Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Donna Pavetti notes, these programs don’t all go to poor people. For instance, Title I benefits school districts with a large share of poor children, however that money will help non-poor students attending those schools.
4) Targeted and community programs: What remains are programs designed to provide certain services to poor communities, which make up the bulk of the number of programs. Adoption assistance ($2.5 billion) and low income taxpayer clinics ($9.9 million) are two examples here.

The idea that all these things are part of a failed “war on poverty” benefiting a shiftless “welfare class” doesn’t pass the smell test. The basic idea behind means-testing, ironically, is to limit benefit programs to the truly needy—i.e., to exclude those who don’t need and thus deserve assistance. Stigmatizing means-tested programs because they haven’t abolished poverty gets it all entirely backwards. In another irony, Republicans often propose creating or increasing means-testing as a way to “reform” entitlement programs (especially Social Security and Medicare). If it’s the poor who are least, not most, deserving of government assistance, because it represents a “poverty trap,” then that makes no sense at all, other than as a way station to abolition of the safety net altogether.

Beneficiaries of non-means-tested government programs, of course, are as a whole much more likely to vote Republican than those who meet a means test. This is why whatever they say privately (or even propose publicly) about Medicare, so many Republicans consistently pose as defenders of Medicare as against the claims on the Treasury of Medicaid or Obamacare subsidies. And it’s why the distillation of contemporary GOP social and fiscal policy, the Ryan Budget, targets means-tested programs for the bulk of its “savings.”

Want one more irony? Republicans often justify “reforms” of means-tested programs as aimed at extending the success of the 1996 welfare reform law (that’s Marco Rubio’s big argument for a mega-block-grant of anti-poverty programs). So they’re touting actual “welfare” as a model for programs that aren’t welfare at all, but that they continue to describe as such for the entertainment of “the base.” Treating “welfare” not as a descriptive term but as one of pure abuse, with nasty moral and racial undertones, is a twentieth-century conservative tradition that continues with renewed strength in the current century.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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