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?

Apparently, they are all welfare recipients….

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.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

35 thoughts on “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?”

  1. Someone should do an analysis of how much of this spending went to Alabama and then determine how much Alabama paid in federal taxes.

    1. Better yet……is it just impossible for a democrat to request that the CRS do this kind of study (Alabama study)? Is “our team” just so damned out to lunch that they can’t play this game too?????

  2. Well… the rapid conservatives have a fairly reasonable point: the government shouldn’t be spending all this money on people; people should be spending their own money on themselves, which is they way we’ve traditionally done things. And here’s another point: this’d be easier to do if people had more money to spend — if incomes for lower and middle class workers had gone up from 1970 to the present they way they did from say 1950 to 1970, most Americans would have about 50% more income and they’d find it a lot easier to pay for dental bills and child care and education and all these other nice things.

    So who made the decisions, in Congress and corporate offices and the like, that caused individual incomes to stagnate for all this period? Liberals or conservatives?

      1. Mike,

        For example: 50% more of $25,000 added to $25,000 doesn’t make it possible for a family of four to pay for dental and medical insurance, child care, education and other necessities. It makes it possible for them to pay for some of these necessities but mostly allows them to breathe a sigh of relief about shelter, food and the basics.

      2. I don’t think you’re right, James. Japan had a very long run of successfully addressing inequality with very few transfer payments to individuals. It’s not impossible: they just imposed an economic structure that created a lot of jobs that capital didn’t need, and were paid at rates that capital didn’t want to pay. There were also generous transfer payments to government contractors–which in Japan, were largely labor-intensive construction, rather than defense. There are faint echoes of this in the US of A: the minimum wage (which is too minimal to really help) and labor law (ditto.) I doubt that the Full Nippon can work here, and I’m not sure that it is still working in Japan. But Japan has shown that it can be done, over a long time, without much in the way of transfer payments to individuals.

        This is one of the key issues, btw, that created a split between Progressives and New Dealers in the US. Many Progressives blanched at the notion of transfer payments to individuals, and became enemies of the New Deal as a result. New Dealers had no problem with it, of course.

        Of course, Americans have no problem with transfer payments to individuals. As long as the beneficiaries are the 47%, and not the 13.1%. The political success of the Republicans has long been due to persuading voters that all transfer payments are going to the 13.1%.

        1. In support of what Ebenzer says, IIRC, in Japan there is a smaller difference between what top earners take home and what everyone else does, so there is less income inequality than we have in the West to begin with. Which probably reflects the Japanese cultural value of putting the community before the individual. So there are at least two ways of addressing inequality, though which is more effective is another question.

          Also, I think the answer to Mike Shupp’s question, “Why have incomes stagnated for all?” has two parts.

          The first is that they have NOT stagnated *for all.* There have been productivity gains and they have almost all gone to the very top. See this wonderful set of charts: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/06/speedup-americans-working-harder-charts

          The second part of the answer is Reganomics and neo-liberalism. And it is less a matter of “Who made the decisions?” than “Who pulled the strings?”

          1. ” the Japanese cultural value of putting the community before the individual”
            I wonder to what extent the absence of this in America is due to the heterogeneity of our citizenry. Right-wing minded types seem very interested in community, as long as it is *their* community. Other countries that seem to be more comfortable handing charity over the to the government seem to be more homogeneous, and thus benefits of “welfare” are going to be seen as being enjoyed by “people like me”.

        2. Blame my European spectacles. But doesn’t Asian equality (Korea too) start with land reform and a large landowning peasantry? If that’s so, the equality was baked in from the start, and just maintained by the form of industrialisation. In Korean chaebol, there’s a tremendous hierarchy of status, but not much in income. Sweden in contrast has it super-rich capitalists (Wallenbergs) but taxes them very heavily. Data, anybody? The USA used to have a landowning peasantry, but it’s largely been swallowed up by agribusiness.

          1. Before I started my comment I tried in vain to google my way into finding the post I vaguely remembered on this topic. I couldn’t find it but I did find this, which seems to cover some of the same ground and sounds resonable (can’t vouch for the authors, as I said, this is just something I found):


            But I agree, the relative amount of inequality in different parts of the world appear to reflect accidents of history and culture. Here in the US, where we’ve let things get so out of hand, and where we place such a strong value on the individual over society/community, it looks like our best bet is, as you put it, doubling down on taxing the very wealthy.

  3. I think this is a fairly reasonable definition of “welfare program”; Any program which takes resources from one group, and gives them to another, for the specific purpose of improving the condition of the second group at the expense of the first.

    And, yes, by that definition, a rather large portion of our governmental spending is “welfare”. Maybe you think having a huge proportion of the budget be welfare is good, maybe you think it’s bad, but by a perfectly reasonable definition of “welfare”, it IS much of what the government is doing these days. It’s senseless to deny it.

    If the people on the receiving end don’t like to think of themselves as “being on welfare”, they’ve got a problem. It’s not a problem which is solved by pretending they’re not on welfare. Either they need to stop being on the receiving end of transfers of wealth, or reconcile themselves to their status.

    1. Okay, Brett. As a New Yorker, I’ll call roads “welfare checks.” If I were childless, I’d call schools, “welfare checks.” As a consumer, I’d call business courts “welfare checks.” If I lived in a gated community, I would call cops “welfare checks.” Fair ’nuff? Or should I keep going on?

      1. and if you own a trucking company or travel by car from state to state then the interstate highways are welfare checks. if you travel by airplane then the air traffic control system is a welfare check. if the quality of the air or water is better in your community now than it was 40 years ago then the epa is a welfare check.

        1. Right. And as Brett says, if the people on the receiving end don’t like to think of themselves as “being on welfare”, they’ve got a problem. Shorter Brett: “You didn’t build that.”

        2. If you own a trucking company, then you are most assuredly getting welfare, I would stand 100% behind that claim. The system for funding highways via fuel taxes dramatically undertaxes truck fuel relative to the contribution trucks make to road damage. Our cargo network in this country would look dramatically different were this not so, with more reliance on trains for long haul shipping, and with the trucks themselves being quite a bit different if they were charged on the basis of road damage.

          For everybody else? No, you ignored the second half of the formula, “for the specific purpose of improving the condition of the second group at the expense of the first.” There’s somewhat of a mis-match between the financing of various government services, and their use, but unless that mis-match is deliberate, engineered to transfer wealth, it’s not “welfare”. “Welfare” is a deliberate, not accidental, transfer of wealth.

          And, yes, a large part of our government spending is deliberately transferring wealth from one group to another. It’s understandable, politically: You can’t effectively buy people’s votes with their own money, you HAVE to transfer wealth, create winners and losers, to buy votes. It’s all about creating as many net recipients, and as few net losers, as possible. If 25% of the population is being deliberately screwed over by a program, and 75% are benefiting, it’s an electoral winner even if the cost to the 25% dramatically exceeds the benefit to the 75%, making the program a net loss to society.

          It’s just a matter of buying as many people’s votes as possible, with as few people’s taxes as possible. Nothing more elevated or noble.

          1. Brett,
            You’ve escaped the frying pan. Welcome to the fire. What legislation has ever been passed for the “specific purpose of improving the condition of the second group at the expense of the first?” Please point us to some evidence. People just don’t work that way. Us libruls are so stupid that we actually think that income redistribution helps the country. Unless you have insights into librul psychology that us libruls don’t have, the “specific purpose” just isn’t there.

            You counter this Chicago-style, with public choice rationale. But this predicts all kinds of things, that just ain’t so. It would predict that Jews are the most heavily taxed group in America, since they like to vote for politicians who raise their taxes. It would predict that the environmental movement gets almost zero funding, because there are few committed environmentalists. It would predict that black people get almost zero funding, because there are few purple states with large black populations. (Hey, that might be true!)

      2. There’s a big difference between government built infrastructure and government services that everyone has access to and being directly dependent on government for one’s day to day existence.

        As the Greeks are demonstrating, a population can become very annoyed when a government creates that kind of dependency and the welches on it.

    2. By this definition not only is everything government does welfare, so is every economic transaction. Thus, the definition isn’t so much wrong as it is useless.

    3. So if government employees get a raise that’s welfare, because it involves taking money from taxpayers and giving it to the employees to improve their condition?

    4. But taking resources from one group, and giving them to another, for the specific purpose of improving the condition of the second group does NOT do so at the expense of the first. You could possibly argue that those payments come at the short term expense of first group, but they result in the long term benefit of the first group payers, since all measurable societal goods, from infant mortality to health, happiness, and longevity are increased in societies as their inequality decreases. These kind of payments generate improvement of the society as a whole which BENEFITS all the payers. For example, Scandinavians pay high taxes, but their corporations are not burdened with paying their employee’s healthcare costs. So entrepreneurs can make startups at less cost and less risk in, say, Denmark, than in the USA.

      “Wellfare” payments that decrease inequality of opportunity, (like “teaching a man to fish,” or sending a poor kid to MIT,) or that improve infrastructure (like building high speed railways and urban public transportation networks, roads, bridges,) or that improve the quality of life (like cleaning up superfund sites, switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, protecting air and water quality, improving waste treatment) benefit the whole population, including the wealthy elite, and libertarian businesses.

      1. So that leads us to the conclusion that there’s no such thing as welfare, at least as long as there are pitchfork and lamp posts in the world…
        Even if you took all the money earned by the bottom quintile and handed it to Sam Walton’s heirs, as long as you believed that suffering ennobles you would really be trying to help the bottom quintile make better choices.

        1. Yeah, you might believe that suffering ennobles, and use that belief to approve of the bottom quintile’s earnings going to Walmart heirs (which I bet pretty much already happens,) but you’d be wrong. See, there’s no evidence that suffering actually *does* ennoble. There’s plenty of evidence for the benefits of relative equality.

          Your example would be welfare for the Walton heirs, ’cause that transfer would increase inequality and make society worse for everyone, (including the Walton heirs.)

          Right now, we’re giving (taxpayer financed) welfare to Big Oil and the fossil fuel industries, to Monsanto and the other agribusinesses, and the financial/bank industry.

  4. 1. I want to defend a qualified version of Brett Bellmore’s definition of welfare spending as a transfer of wealth to one group that does not benefit everyone in society in the short-term. So you could like spending on defense, law enforcement, transportation, fire protection, and education because even if you do not personally rely on those things from the government, it is easy to say that everybody in society benefits when many people are safe, mobile, and educated. Of course, there are people who think these things are unnecessary (especially when education involves universal higher-education, and transportation involves urban transit). Welfare spending, on the other hand, is based on the idea that society as a whole is better when people who do not have a lot of wealth are given more wealth, at the at least relative expense of people who have been defined by property law to have enough wealth that they do not need it as much, and will have the result of letting more people experience more benefits of society (which itself may have a long-term benefit for everybody in society like defense, law enforcement, roads, schools, etc.).
    2. A title as sonorous as “Spending for Federal Benefits and Services for People with Low Income” deserves a cool acronym. B-Supply for Benefits and Services for People with Low Income?

  5. BTW, adding government-run services to transfers and dividing by GDP creates an apples-to-oranges statistic. To make Brett sleep worse, the maximum here isn’t 100%, it’s 200%. Consider Socialist Dystopia A, in which the State owns all the means of production, an everybody is a state employee. Government purchases are 100% of GDP. But it levies no taxes for transfers. In Socialist Dystopia B, the state provides no services, but confiscates 100% of everybody’s production and redistributes it again. (Think of an autarkic prison farm.) That’s 100% transfers. You can add a bit of transfers to A and state services to B, and get over 100% on the conventional ratio. Neither A nor B are feasible, only thought experiments.

  6. Right, to me the conclusion here is that the sooner we get people back to work, the better for the long-term deficit.

    1. And the better certainly for all those who need work! A worthy goal in itself.

      But getting employment levels back to where they used to be alone wouldn’t have as much as an impact on the long-term deficit as ending the Bush-era tax cuts and ending our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. See http://www.cbpp.org/cms/?fa=view&id=3036

      What this chart shows is that if there was a choice between ending those tax-cuts and ending the economic downturn and all you cared about was reducing the deficit, you’d have to go with ending the tax-cuts.

  7. The illusion Brett and co suffer under is that, absent these or other transfers, everyone would get what they had earned. But it’s the whole point first of the division of labor and second of a partially-monetised society and third of the uncertainties built into the socuial universe that this is not the case. Which is why mothers don’t get paid, why wages and salaries in any cooperative enterprise (such as a company) reflect hierarchies and values much more than some largely unidentifiable individual level of contribution and so on. If childcare, care for the old or the disabled, care for the ill are welfare then we have all been welfare recipients since the dawn of time, ever since we started living in bands. If you don’t like the label, feel free to de-evolve.

  8. “Which is why mothers don’t get paid,”

    That’s an interesting assertion. I agree that mothers don’t get formally paid. (Absent alimony, of course…) OTOH, it’s scarcely irrelevant to this analysis that my wife always wears newer clothes than I do, does not lack for supplies for her hobbies, and generally lives like somebody who IS getting paid would expect to live. For all that she doesn’t get a formal paycheck, she enjoys higher discretionary spending than I do. Not that I’m griping about this, her being happy makes me happy, so it’s all good. (A concept any Randian, for all the misunderstandings on the left, would instantly understand.)

    But I think it’s more than a little deceptive to state that “mothers don’t get paid”, without a long list of qualifications which tend to take the bite out of the statement.

    Do I think that, absent these governmental transfers, everyone would get what they had earned? Nope, it’s an imperfect world. Which is no excuse to make it more imperfect; Are the people getting these transfers earning them? Save by voting, I don’t see how. They’re just getting them.

    I’m sure you’re all familiar with the concept of the “resource curse”. But have you ever thought of taxpayers, where they’re a minority of the population, being a “resource”? Think about it, it’s an enlightening way to look at the subject.

  9. Brett

    absent these government transfers, there would be compulsory household transfers, compulsory parish transfers, semi-compulsory transfers via nobless oblige (“I am sure your honour will not forget that the harvest has been poor…and the dry weather makes the hay liable to fires….”), compulsory contributions to the church to support the widow and the orphan…It’s not new. It’s just that we discovered painfully that government is the best way to do these things in a mobile industrial society. Better coverage, lower overheads. “Taxpayers” has NEVER equalled “everyone”.

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