About That $1 Trillion in Welfare Spending

At The New Republic, Timothy Noah scores some points on Jeff Sessions, the Alabaman ranking Republican member of the Senate Budget Committee. Sessions’ crime? Pushing the claim that the federal government spends more on welfare -- $746 billion -- than on any other budget item, and that total federal and state spending on welfare programs is more than $1 trillion.

Noah writes that Sessions’ definition of welfare is an “unrecognizably maximalist” one (Sessions simply asked the Congressional Research Service (CRS) to add up every means-tested item in the budget), and suggests that the term welfare is “understood” to mean the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and sometimes food stamps. Those two programs together account for only $96 billion of the budget. The reason Sessions subscribes to such a wildly inflated measure of welfare spending, Noah concludes, is because he wants to scapegoat welfare recipients in order to build political support for cutting government spending.

Certainly it serves whatever motives Sessions might have to stick the category of “welfare spending” with a trillion-dollar-plus price tag.

Yet there are at least two reasons why it might be a helpful exercise to tally up the total amount of means-tested spending in the federal budget.

The first is that what constitutes “welfare” is not as clear-cut as it once was. Sessions’ definition is likely too expansive. By the same token, Noah’s is too limited. The Earned Income Tax Credit and child tax credit both function as substitutes for cash assistance, and they both account for more federal funds than TANF does. That's right in the CRS report:

Is it unfair to consider those programs “welfare”? 

Or what about housing assistance? It's a little less cash-like, but it plays a much bigger part in reducing poverty than TANF now does:

Furthermore, some programs that aren’t means-tested act, in many cases, as welfare for the people that rely on them. Social Security disability insurance is a prominent example that’s been in the news recently.

Since the 1996 welfare reform law, for better or for worse, a number of different programs in different areas of the federal budget have taken on the function that the old welfare program used to serve more exclusively. Retaining the mindset that "welfare" means "TANF," and that every knows that, would give false impression of how the different pieces of the safety tie together. Thinking that welfare comprises more than just TANF is not a Republican conspiracy.

The second reason it’s helpful to at least attempt to find the sum of all anti-poverty is that it can provide a metric of the government’s efficiency in fighting poverty. According to the Census Bureau, there are 46.5 million Americans living in poverty, with the poverty level defined as $23,021 for a family of four. If you divide the $1.03 trillion in total means-tested spending by 46.5 million, you get roughly $22,000. So if we simply eliminated the 80-plus means-tested programs and instead sent out $22,000 checks to each person (not household) under the poverty line, we would eliminate technical poverty in the U.S. several times over.

Of course, that’s not possible for a host of reasons, and the “welfare spending” identified by Sessions aids people above the poverty line as well as below. Nonetheless, possible scapegoating aside, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of how anti-poverty funds are being spent – and also how the nearly $4 trillion federal budget is structured. 

Joseph Lawler is editor of RealClearPolicy. He can be reached by email or on twitter.

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