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Washington Post's Faulty Fact-Checking on Welfare

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The Washington Post’s “fact-checker” columnist, Glenn Kessler, recently took aim at a chart on federal welfare spending released by Senator Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), as well as a statement the senator made earlier this month at a hearing on welfare reform.

“Converted to cash,” Sessions said, “we spend enough on federal welfare to mail every household living beneath the poverty line a check for $60,000 each year.”

What bothered Kessler about this statement? For one thing, he doesn’t agree that Medicaid — which accounts for about half of the cost of the government’s 80-plus welfare programs — should be counted as means-tested assistance. He argues that “health-care spending is different from food stamps or the earned income tax credit in that such aid generally does not add to a family’s income level; instead, such assistance helps pays for bills that are the direct result of how sick or disabled a patient.”

But in order to be eligible for Medicaid individuals must meet certain income criteria. Not just anyone can receive the health-care benefit simply because he or she is sick or disabled. It’s a means-tested program — like the other 80 federal programs designed to provide assistance to low-income Americans.

Kessler also argues that Americans in poverty aren’t the only ones who receive assistance from welfare. So, he writes, the denominator — the number of people included in Sessions’ equation — is too small.

Well, yes, the number of Americans receiving any type of welfare assistance far exceeds the number of those with incomes below the official poverty line. In fact, about one-third of Americans receive such assistance every month.

Sesssion’s chart showed welfare spending relative to those living below the official poverty line, to show what welfare spending “equates to” per officially poor household: $60,000. But even if the denominator is increased to include the roughly one-third of the U.S. population receiving assistance, the amount of welfare spending per household is still nothing to sneeze at. It equates to almost $40,000 annually per family of four. This number, of course, isn’t a precise estimate of what each poor household receives, but it serves to show that the amount of welfare spending relative to those served is very high.

Welfare spending has increased dramatically — sixteen-fold (adjusting for inflation) — since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the War on Poverty in 1964. For five decades, government’s response to poverty has been to increase welfare spending and add programs, rather than to address the causes of poverty and promote self-sufficiency. Not surprisingly, the poverty rate today is roughly the same as it was in LBJ’s time.

True welfare reform promotes self-reliance and helps, not hinders, the poor, as Sessions and others testified earlier this month. Only two of those 80-plus welfare programs require able-bodied adults to work or prepare for work. The number was three until last summer, when the Obama administration gutted work requirements from the 1996 welfare-reform law.

The 1996 reform succeeded in promoting self-reliance through work: Welfare rolls dropped by half as recipients left government assistance for jobs, and child-poverty rates plummeted, especially for black children. Instead of undermining these reforms, policymakers should restore them and expand them to other welfare programs.

As Sessions noted at last week’s hearing: “No longer can we measure compassion by how much we spend on poverty, but [instead we should measure it by] how many people we help to lift out of poverty.”

— Rachel Sheffield, a research associate in the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation, is co-author with Robert Rector of the paper “Understanding Poverty in the United States.”

First appeared in National Review Online's "The Corner."

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