Can Progressives Do Arithmetic?

July 05, 2006

Dean Baker
Truthout, July 5, 2006

See article on original website

Few people would pay $800 to see a movie (even a good one) or $500 for a beer. Regardless of how much we like movies and beer, these are steep prices.

When it comes to government social programs like Head Start and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), the government’s main welfare program, people also care about the price tag. Unfortunately, the proponents of these programs never give a price tag, or at least they don’t give one that the public can understand. As a result, many voters are resistant to spending on these programs, because conservatives tell them that they cost too much.

The reality is that the price tag for most anti-poverty programs is quite small relative to the total federal budget. For example, Head Start accounts for approximately 0.2 percent of the federal budget, or 20 cents of every $100 of spending. Less than 60 cents of every hundred dollars of federal spending goes to TANF. The appropriations for child care subsidies, assistance for the homeless, and the nutrition programs for young children are considerably smaller.

Yet most people believe that these anti-poverty programs take up a large share of the budget. When the question is asked on opinion polls, people regularly cite welfare as one of the largest items in the federal budget.

The confusion on this point is understandable. Most people never hear that TANF costs 0.6 percent of the budget or that Head Start only takes up 0.2 percent of federal spending. They hear that TANF costs $16 billion a year and that Head Start costs $6 billion. These sums sound very large and scary. They are vastly larger than the amount of money a typical person will see or deal with in his lifetime. Since almost no one, apart from a few DC policy wonks, has any idea of how large the federal budget is, the impression that most people get from these budget numbers is that the country is spending an enormous amount of money on these programs.

If people believe that we are already spending vast sums on welfare-type programs, they are quite reasonably reluctant to spend more. After all, if we are spending a huge amount of money on anti-poverty programs already, and so many people are still in poverty, why would we think that spending even more money would make any difference? Also, if people think that a large portion of the budget is going to anti-poverty programs, then they may think that increasing the size of these programs will mean a big tax hit – or conversely, that cutting these programs would allow for large tax cuts. For these reasons, it is important that the public have some knowledge of the true size of these programs if they are to gain more popular support.

The route to increasing public knowledge is not difficult, it is only necessary to change the way that budget items are reported in the media. If the media started reporting budget numbers in context (e.g. that the appropriation for TANF is 0.6 percent of projected federal spending) then the public would be far more knowledgeable about the true importance of these programs to the budget and their tax bill.

This is in fact a very winnable goal. Most serious reporters recognize that numbers in the billions or tens of billions are completely meaningless to virtually all of their readers. (I know this firsthand from having argued with them about the issue for many years.) Dan Okrent, the first public editor at the New York Times, actually made exactly this point in one of his columns.

The current practice of reporting budget numbers that are essentially meaningless to readers/viewers persists primarily because of inertia. Reporters do it because other reporters do it and no one (other than me) ever gives them any heat over it. The groups working on poverty issues have very limited resources, but since there is almost no one who would stand in opposition to more informative budget reporting, they could win this battle with the media with even a minimal commitment of resources.

Unfortunately, there seems no willingness by these groups to take up the cause. They mostly seem to follow the philosophy that “if you’ve been losing political battles for more than a quarter century, why change now?” As a result, the public will continue to believe that anti-poverty programs cost far more than is the case, and the anti-poverty groups will be left pushing $500 beers.


Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer. He also has a blog, “Beat the Press,” where he discusses the media’s coverage of economic issues. You can find it at the American Prospect’s web site.

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