The Welfare State Has Not Been Dismantled

By Robert VerBruggen

The American Prospect's Monica Potts, who covers poverty frequently, writes:

Johnson’s initiatives passed beginning in 1964 and throughout his second term, and were aimed at the communities left out of policies that had created the widespread prosperity enjoyed by most Americans after the Great Depression -- especially the rural poor and African Americans. It wasn’t long, however, before those programs came under attack. The next president, Richard Nixon, used resentment over expanded rights and anti-poverty legislation to wrench the votes of Southern whites away from the Democrats: Ronald Reagan began dismantling these programs in the 1980s. Since then the country has concerned itself more with policies that help businesses grow than with the plight of the least well off. It’s part of the reason we suffered through the Great Recession, and why poverty remains stuck at 15 percent.

This is a little misleading. It's certainly true that liberals are more enthusiastic about poverty programs than conservatives are, and that such programs would be more generous if liberals had their way. But contrary to what readers may think after absorbing this paragraph, Ronald Reagan didn't come close to stopping the growth of welfare spending. Here's a chart from Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation on total means-tested welfare spending in the U.S. It's as a percentage of GDP, so the actual value of the spending increased even more:

Or, if you prefer data from a more left-leaning source, here's a chart from the Urban/Brookings Tax Policy Center focusing on traditional welfare (AFDC and then TANF) and the earned income tax credit (a refundable credit given to the working poor). Though traditional welfare has held fairly steady, the growth in the EITC has been incredible, and this graph does not include the various other programs Rector factored in:

 

The fact that the money was spent doesn't mean it was spent well, and Potts has some suggestions for directing funds where they're needed most. And the fact that spending has increased doesn't mean it shouldn't go even higher. But there's no evidence for a "dismantling" of welfare programs.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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