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October 22, 2012 9:18 AM What Do Indian Health Service Patients, College Students Receiving Work Study and Pell Grants, and Members of Rural Communities Receiving Water and Waste Disposal Grants Have in Common?

By Harold Pollack

Apparently, they are all welfare recipients.

In this clip, FOX News’ anchor Eric Bolling announced that federal spending on welfare has now reached $1.03 trillion. As Senator Jeff Sessions put things, “Welfare Is [the] Single Largest Federal Expense.”

I was puzzled by this. Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF)–traditional cash welfare to single mothers and their children–accounts for barely one percent of this total. If one adds in the obvious suspects such as public housing, one doesn’t get anywhere near $1 trillion. Getting one-tenth of the way requires work.

I tracked down the source of this statistic to a Congressional Research Service memo which gave the details. This memo, by CRS analyst Karen Spar, is directed to conservative Senate policy analyst Paul Winfree. It appears under the punchy subject heading “Spending for Federal Benefits and Services for People with Low Income, FY2008-FY2011: An Update of Table B-1 from CRS Report R41625, Modified to Remove Programs for Veterans.” Apparently Winfree asked CRS to remove veterans’ programs from this memo. This reflects a not-unreasonable theory that veterans might be a tad offended to see their benefits described under the label of “welfare.” For similar reasons, Medicare and Social Security are excluded, too.

As well they might have. I looked through the memorandum, whose heart is an eight-page spreadsheet with the euphonious title: “Spending for Federal Benefits and Services for People with Low Income by Program (excluding programs for veterans): FY2008-FY2011, including ARRA.”

This table lists 83 programs. The usual suspects are all there: TANF, food stamps, SSI, public housing, and Section VII. Many other items are there, too. The entire Medicaid budget provides about one-third of the total. Two-thirds of Medicaid dollars go to finance care for the elderly and the disabled. My in-laws received Medicaid to care for their disabled son. My father-in-law was a hard-working construction guy. He would not have taken kindly to this description. Neither would my mother-in-law, who worked multiple jobs pretty much to the day she died.

The list goes on, and on. There’s the entire budget of the Indian Health Service. There are federal work-study and Pell grants. There’s nutrition for the elderly and the foster grandparent program. There are family planning services, the Earned Income Tax Credit, transitional services for refugees, breast and cervical cancer early detection programs. There’s the Medicare prescription drug subsidy for low-income seniors. Then there are adoption assistance, child support enforcement, improving teacher quality state grants,” and even “water and waste disposal for rural communities.”

The list is mind-numbing, but it reflects a broader point. Apparently, Senator Sessions and FOX News define “welfare” as any program which helps some American live a better, safer, or more productive life. If that’s the definition of “welfare,” I’m only sorry that the federal government doesn’t spend more on it.

PS: If you are a glutton for punishment, you can watch my dramatic reading here.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.
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