Popping up on my facebook feed and elsewhere the last few weeks has been an urban legend in the making. It's a claim people on government benefits actually have more income than those making the median income for the country.
This claim is courtesy of Senator Jeff Sessions. It's a loaded accusation that seems perfectly tailored to build class resentment and perpetuate myths about poverty in the "welfare queen" vein.
And, it's not true.
The folks at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities have done the hard work of proving why and are happy to call out the fuzzy math. From the CPBB, via the Census.
In 2011, the typical person in a family whose income was below the poverty line before means-tested benefits are counted remained 12 percent below the poverty line after counting the non-health means-tested benefits (including SNAP, housing assistance, SSI, cash welfare assistance, and the EITC, among others). Moreover, these benefits left this low-income individual 57 percent below the living standard of the typical middle-income American.
Basically, Sessions took a bunch of government benefits, like health care for elderly people on Medicaid and Medicare in one column. He then counted these benefits as cash, which they are not. He then said these benefits go to low-income families, which they do not, in many cases. CPBB has a detailed breakdown of Sessions analysis, and their own.
These numbers might be wrong, but they do not seem like a mistake. In fact, since the fiscal cliff negotiations put a target on government benefits there has been a deliberate move to recast a whole host of programs as "welfare."
This includes Medicare and Social Security. The benefit of this strategy for opponents of government spending is two fold. Including these programs in the category of welfare spending inflates those numbers like a giant balloon. It also pushes an emotional button. Many of us find it easy to hate welfare, in the abstract. But it is much harder to hate say, Alzheimer's care for an old man at the end of his life, or say, social security benefits for an old woman who has paid into the system her whole life.
So beware the smoke and mirrors. Government benefits may not be criticism proof, or even efficient. But what they are not is a middle-class income, for free.