How an Astounding New Right-Wing Lie About the Economy Was Born

Read the full story by Joshua Holland on AlterNet - http://www.alternet.org/economy/how-astounding-new-right-wing-lie-about-...

December 14, 2012 - There's a new economic myth that's now being amplified by the conservative media. It demonizes vital public services and suggests that the poor are doing just fine thanks to the largesse of the country's “makers.” Conservatives are being told that the United States is now spending vast fortunes combatting poverty – more than we dedicate to national defense, Social Security and Medicare.

This new spin is notable not for its mendacity – although it is completely divorced from reality – but because its origins are easily traced, allowing us to see how these kinds of distortions come to be. This one originated with the work of an analyst at the Heritage Foundation who is well known for his intellectual dishonesty. It was then picked up by Republican staffers on Capitol Hill, who lent the claim credibility by requesting a Congressional Research Service report on the analysis. They then further distorted the narrative before distributing it to friendly writers at conservative media outlets, who dutifully reported the falsehood. It will soon become conventional wisdom on the Right, further distorting conservatives' view of taxes and spending.
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A Lie Is Born

A great deal of conservative economic views are shaped by myths. Think about the fact-free narrative that slashing tax rates for the wealthy will result in more revenues coming into the government's coffers, the common claim that half of the country pays no taxes , or the idea that increasing domestic oil production can lower global oil prices enough to bring down the price of a gallon of gas here at home.

So it will be with the idea that the federal government spends a trillion on “welfare.” But this particular myth is interesting in that we can trace its provenance, see where it came from, how it was amplified, and how it was shaped along the way.

In May, Robert Rector, the Heritage Foundation's “senior research fellow on family and welfare studies,” testified before the House Budget Committee . He identified 79 of what he described as “means-tested welfare” programs, with a total price tag of $927 billion (in combined costs to the federal government and the states).

Who is Robert Rector? He's an analyst with a long and storied history of suggesting that the poorest Americans are living quite well. Andy Kroll profiled him for Mother Jones when it was reported that Rector had been the source of Mitt Romney's universally debunked claim that Obama had “gutted” the work requirements of Bill Clinton's welfare “reforms .”
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The result of doing the math right is that, rather than spending $61,320 per year for every family living under the poverty line, as Senate Republicans claim – and Daniel Halper and others parrot – the real number is, according to Rector's own testimony, “$9,040 for each lower-income American (i.e., persons in the lowest-income third of the population).”

Regardless of the number, at this point the claim was being made only by a Heritage Foundation fellow of dubious distinction. But Rector's testimony before the House Budget Committee so impressed Jeff Sessions' staff, that they asked the Congressional Research Service to prepare a report examining the total cost of programs that help low-income Americans, either directly or indirectly.

The report they got back from CRS – which identified four more programs than Rector had – gave added credibility to Rector's original claim. But the authors were was careful to note that their analysis didn't look only at “welfare.” And they noted that it included programs that aren't in fact means-tested at all. Programs were included, according to the report, if “they (1) had provisions that base an individual’s eligibility or priority for service on a measure (or proxy) of low or limited income; or (2) target resources in some way (e.g., through allocation formulas, variable matching rates) using a measure (or proxy) of low or limited income.”
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The CRS report is dated October 16. The National Review ran an item two days later, when Jeff Sessions issued a press release, and Fox News amplified the claim two days after that. Both reports mentioned the total price tag for these programs – close to $1 trillion – but neither cited the $168 per day claimed by Sessions' staffers. It was that framing, featured in the headline of Daniel Halper's Weekly Standard piece, that appears to have driven the myth to the larger conservative media.

The end result is that a lot of Americans are woefully misinformed about what we spend on anti-poverty programs, and what those programs look like. Traditional welfare – now known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families – costs the federal government just $16.5 billion, a fraction of what's now claimed by the Right. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities , even when one uses a very expansive definition of “welfare,” only “13 percent of the federal budget in 2011, or $466 billion, went to support programs that provide aid (other than health insurance or Social Security benefits) to individuals and families facing hardship.”

So we have another gap between what is “true” in the conservative media bubble and the objective facts. In the real world, we spend about $25 per day on the needy. But, according to Fox News, the figure is $168.