Of Makers and Takers Revisited: The Right’s Latest Lies About Dependence on Government

On the one hand, I get it. Census Bureau reports can be pretty dry and a bit vague. They tend to be heavy on facts but pretty open-ended as to how one might interpret those facts. Census researchers aren’t paid to explain what the numbers suggest in most cases; rather, they are charged with compiling data and leaving it to social scientists to ascribe meaning to the numbers they divulge.

Sadly, there are no social scientists at FOX News, and so rather than cautious analysis in the face of official government data, we are treated to histrionic and transparently disingenuous deception in the furtherance of a right-wing narrative.

To wit, the recent alarm bells set off at Rupert Murdoch’s propaganda mill over a report indicating that sixty-five percent of American children now live in a household that receives some form of public assistance during the course of a year. The report, which was released this month, notes that among other indicators of child well-being, roughly two-thirds of the nation’s youth live in homes where benefits from SNAP (food stamps), TANF (cash welfare), Medicaid, WIC (nutritional aid for certain infants, toddlers and their moms) and/or the school lunch program are received. To FOX commentator and longtime actress Stacey Dash (whose most memorable role was, appropriately enough, in the film “Clueless”), such facts prove that government aid is “the new version of slavery.” Of course it is, because if you receive an EBT card or state-subsidized asthma medication it’s exactly like being whipped, raped, and stripped of all legal rights. Exactly. The. Same.

In any event, and putting aside Dash’s predictable and tired slavery analogy (which we hadn’t heard in at least a week from Ben Carson or Allen West), the entire reaction to the Census report in question indicates why you should never rely on anyone who gets their check from Roger Ailes to interpret social reality for you. Numbers and their meaning are simply above these folks’ pay grade.

So let’s look at the report and actually break it down, unlike the folks at FOX, who probably didn’t even read it, but instead chose to rely on the internet blast about it, sent out by CNS News: a right-wing site only about a half-step up the journalistic food chain from the birther and conspiracy pit known as World Net Daily, and one to which FOX turns regularly.

As for the raw facts, FOX and CNS got them right. In 2011, approximately forty-eight million separate children lived in a home where benefits from one or more of the above-mentioned programs were received, and this represented sixty-five percent of all children in the United States that year. Thirty-five million of these kids lived in homes where someone received benefits from the school lunch program; twenty-six million of them lived in homes where Medicaid benefits were utilized; seventeen million of them were in homes that received SNAP; six million were in homes that used WIC, and a little over two million were in homes that benefitted from cash assistance under TANF (1). Although these numbers have come down a bit since then, for 2011 they are indeed accurate so far as they go.

But this is roughly the point at which FOX and CNS proceed to get everything else about the report horribly, horribly wrong. In other words, when the task shifts from reading numbers off a page to actually comprehending their meaning, conservatives seem utterly incapable of making the transition.

To begin with, the period under review in the report stretches from 2008 to 2011. In other words, the report examines children’s family conditions during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Even the data for 2011 reflects family conditions at the tail end of the recession and while the after-shocks of job loss and wage stagnation in the previous three years were still reverberating for millions. That the number of kids in families having to turn to various government benefits would increase during an economic crisis unparalleled in the past seventy years should hardly surprise anyone.

Second, and as the report’s author makes very clear, among the primary challenges facing children — and particularly those in low- and moderate-income families — are disruptive life transitions like parental unemployment or having to move to a new place often. These kinds of transitions, as the report indicates, are highly correlated with having to rely on one or another government program. As it turns out, forty-two percent of children in poor families (and about a third of all kids in the nation) moved at least once during the period under review; and forty-four percent of poor kids (and about a third of all children) had at least one parent who experienced a change in their job situation during the period under review. This matters because, as the author notes:

Parents who have steady employment may be better able to provide consistent economic support, while parents who go through many job changes may have unpredictable work schedules and irregular income.

In other words, whatever the statistics might say, they suggest that use of these programs is less about culturally-engendered dependence on benefits and more about serious and unexpected life drama that happens often to persons who are on the economic margins, and especially during an extraordinary economic recession.

Third, to argue that the sixty-five percent figure proves the so-called welfare state is creating a self-perpetuating culture of poverty (the standard right-wing interpretation) ignores the fact that most of the kids reaping the benefits from the listed programs are not officially poor, but they qualify for benefits because their family incomes are too low to bring them above eligibility levels. There were 16.6 million children living in poor families in America in 2011, for instance, but 47.9 million kids living in families receiving benefits from these programs that year. This means that two-thirds of the kids whose families benefit from these efforts are not living in poor homes, which in turn means that they will likely be in homes with parents who earn income, but not enough to make it without a little help. Many others live in homes that are poor but still have earned income from work. How the use of these programs can be blamed for fostering “dependence” or discouraging work when most of the beneficiaries live in homes with earned income is a mystery left unexamined by conservative hysterics.

So, for instance, let’s look at the SNAP program (what used to be called Food Stamps). According to the most recent data from 2013, fifty-two percent of SNAP households with kids have earned income from work, and of those which don’t, a large number of them have parents who are disabled. In fact, it is increasingly likely for SNAP recipient households to have earned income, and less likely for them to rely on other forms of assistance, suggesting that receipt of this program’s benefits has nothing to do with dependence, but rather, low-wage work in a faltering economy. For instance, SNAP households are fifty percent more likely to have income from work today than they were in 1989, while the likelihood that they receive cash welfare has plummeted by eighty-five percent, from forty-two percent of such households to only 6.5 percent today.

Or consider the school lunch program. According to the report that so concerns FOX, this is the program that appears to benefit the most children, with nearly half of all kids living in homes that benefit from this one government effort. But there are three huge problems with the way conservatives are reading the data. To begin with, eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch goes up to 185 percent of the poverty line, which means that many beneficiaries of this program are not poor, and thus reside in families that are hardly dependent on welfare benefits; rather they work, albeit at jobs that don’t pay enough to bring them above the eligibility limits. How a program can be rendering people dependent when they in fact work hard every day is again left unexplained by the right.

Second, according to the most recent data, nearly nine million kids who are counted as benefitting from the school lunch program — and who represent nearly thirty percent of current recipients — are called “full-pay” beneficiaries. Their family income is high enough to where they don’t qualify for free meals, or even officially reduced-price lunches, but they are still receiving a slight price break, and are thus counted in the data as beneficiaries of the program. They may not even know that they’re benefitting. They don’t have to fill out paperwork or apply; rather, they just receive a slight subsidy for the cafeteria meals they purchase, and are therefore counted just like folks who get their meals for free. Clearly, even under the most absurd interpretation, these 8.7 million recipients cannot be considered “dependent.”

Third, many children who receive benefits from the school lunch program only do so because they live in high-poverty school districts where all students are automatically enrolled in the program (even if they aren’t poor, and no matter how hard their parents work)—a policy implemented so as to reduce administrative and paperwork costs, thereby allowing the program to operate more cheaply and efficiently. While we could perhaps end automatic enrollment and make all parents prove their low income in order to qualify for benefits, such a change would add to the costs of the program by increasing the kinds of bureaucratic paper-shuffling that the right normally opposes.

In all, when you consider those kids who receive school lunch benefits but are a) not poor and who live in homes with a parent or parents who work; b) poor but whose parent or parents work; c) not poor at all but who benefit from the small subsidy provided even to “full pay” recipients; or d) children who benefit automatically just because they attend a high poverty school but who may not be poor themselves, there is little doubt that the vast majority of the children and families claimed as beneficiaries are not caught in a cycle of dependence, and that none of them are being “enslaved” by the program.

As for Medicaid, the assumption that families with kids who make use of this program are slackers who would rather let the government take care of them than work for a living couldn’t be farther from the truth. Fully eighty-six percent of children who receive benefits through Medicaid or the supplement to Medicaid known as the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), are in families where at least one adult works. Sadly, despite their earned income and even middle class status in many cases, families in high cost-of-living areas where health care inflation has been especially onerous are eligible for benefits and often have to make use of them. But doing so hardly suggests that the families are suffering from a debilitating mentality of dependence, nor that their children are being taught to rely on the state. The parents in these cases are doing their best, they’re working, and doing everything conservatives would have them do. Unfortunately their earnings have been insufficient to cover the spiraling costs of health care.

And when it comes to the WIC program for postpartum moms and their infants and toddlers, forty-three percent of beneficiaries live above the poverty line due to earned income, but still qualify for assistance. If nearly half of beneficiaries aren’t even poor because they receive money from employment, how can the program be seen as encouraging dependence and laziness? And even for those beneficiaries who are poor, how can a program that provides assistance to children at special risk for nutritional deficiencies (like kids who were born prematurely or with particularly low-birth weight), be ridiculed as an effort that fosters a culture of poverty?

Finally, neither FOX nor the CNS News folks from whom they take their lead differentiate between families that rely on program benefits for long periods and those that only make use of them for shorter time frames. For most of the programs mentioned, spells of benefit receipt are short. For cash assistance, for example, half of all recipients who come onto the TANF rolls will exit the program within four months, while nearly eighty percent will be off the program within a year. For SNAP, most who come onto the program will be off the rolls within a year, and two-thirds will exit within twenty months. To suggest that receiving benefits from government programs makes one “dependent” on handouts, even when those benefits are received only for a short time between jobs, or when one’s hours have been cut back in a recession, or because one has fallen ill, seems the epitome of rhetorical sadism.

And finally, until the right tallies up the percentage of, let’s say, investment bankers who work for companies that have been bailed out by the government — no doubt a percentage that would far and away eclipse the share of kids in families getting paltry assistance from the state — they are truly in no position to lecture about dependence anyway. Until they are prepared to point the finger at hedge fund managers and level accusations of parasitism or suggest that TARP is the new slavery, they would do well to remain quiet. And until Stacey Dash is ready to call for tough love and perhaps drug testing of those who have received the largesse of corporate welfare, subsidies or special tax breaks, methinks she might do best to stick to acting and leave the social commentary to people who actually know how to analyze data.

(1) The reason the combined numbers of children receiving benefits from these various programs is more than the 47.9 million claimed to be beneficiaries overall is because some children live in homes where benefits from more than one program are received.

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