As we mark the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, it would be appropriate to note one of the main causes of its limited success, using big numbers without context. The issue here is a simple one; most people think that we have committed vastly more resources than is in fact the case to fighting this war. As a result, they are reasonably (based on their understanding) reluctant to contribute more resources.
Polls consistently show the public hugely exaggerates the share of the budget that goes to programs like Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) or food stamps. They believe that these anti-poverty programs are responsible for a large share of the budget when in reality their impact is marginal. (TANF accounts for about 0.4 percent of federal spending and food stamps account for 2.1 percent.) This is partly due to the fact that these items are always reported as millions or billions of dollars, which are very large numbers that few people can conceptualize. They are rarely reported as shares of the total budget.
As a result of exaggerating their importance to the budget, the public is less likely to support anti-poverty programs. They see them as a big part of their tax bill, thinking that their taxes, or at least the deficit, would decrease substantially if we spent less on these programs.
They also reasonably question their effectiveness. If we were actually spending one-third of the budget on anti-poverty programs and still had so many poor people, then the public would be right to question whether this was a good use of their tax dollars.
The NYT has committed itself to expressing large budget numbers in a context that will make them understandable to readers. It remains to be seen whether they will follow through on this commitment. If they do, and the rest of the media follow suit, it will have a substantial impact on the public's understanding of the War on Poverty.