- Posted April 30, 2012 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Poor Vs. Rich - Who Gets the Most from Congress?
We have all been assailed with the cries of "class warfare". Daily we hear how Republicans are out to protect the rich and the Democrats are out to protect the poor and middle class.
But what is the truth?
Who gets most of the monetary benefits from Congress?
Do the rich win out or does the money and benefits flow mainly to the poor and middle class?
According to an op-ed piece in the Orange County Register by syndicated columnist Robert J. Samuelson of the Washington Post, the rich and their lobbyists may win some breaks, loopholes and privileges, but the vast majority of spending keeps greasing the poor and middle class.
Recently, Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, testified before the House Budget Committee on the growth of the 10-largest "means tested" federal programs that serve people who qualify by various definitions of poverty. Here's what Haskins reported: From 1980 to 2011, annual spending on these programs grew from $126 billion to $626 billion (all figures in inflation-adjusted "2011 dollars"); dividing this by the number of people below the government poverty line, spending went from $4,300 per poor person in 1980 to $13,000 in 2011. In 1962, spending per person in poverty was $516.
Haskins' list includes Medicaid, food stamps (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP), the earned-income tax credit (a wage subsidy for some low-income workers), and Pell Grants. There are other, smaller programs dedicated to the poor. A report from the Congressional Research Service estimated the total number at 83; Haskins puts the additional spending on programs below the 10 largest at about $210 billion. The total of all programs for the poor exceeds $800 billion.
To be sure, some spending reflects the effects of the Great Recession. But most doesn't. As Haskins shows, spending on the poor has increased steadily for decades. Consider food stamps. There are now about 45 million Americans receiving an average of $287 a month in food stamps, up from 26 million in 2007, according to a new Congressional Budget Office report. But the number in 2007, when the economy was healthy, was roughly 50 percent higher than in 2001.
And programs for the poor pale beside middle-class transfers. The giants here are Social Security at $725 billion in 2011 and Medicare at $560 billion. Combine all this spending -- programs for the poor, Social Security and Medicare -- and the total is nearly $2.1 trillion. That was about 60 percent of 2011 non-interest federal spending of $3.4 trillion.
You can debate whether all this spending is too much or too little. My point is different: These numbers speak volumes about our politics.
One lesson is that Washington really hasn't been taken over by moneyed groups. In a democracy, even the rich are entitled to promote their interests. It's true that their lobbyists and lawyers sometimes win lucrative tax breaks, subsidies or regulatory preferences. But as the spending numbers show, their influence is exaggerated, especially considering their tax burden. The richest fifth of Americans pay nearly 70 percent of federal taxes (included in this group, the richest 10 percent pay 55 percent), estimates the CBO.
The larger lesson is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, American politics have not become insensitive to the "the people." In many ways, just the opposite is true. Politicians are too responsive to popular will. The real Washington is in the business of pleasing as many people as possible for as long as possible. There are now vast constituencies dependent on the largesse of the federal government. This is the main cause of huge "structural" budget deficits, meaning that they aren't simply a hangover from the Great Recession.
Is there then in fact a war on the poor and middle class?
Have the lobbyists for the rich taken captive both Republican and Democratic lawmakers?
Are the poor and middle class worse off because of Congress than they have been in the past?
From the Cornfield, this information gives us a reason to think.
Are Americans becoming too dependent on the largesse of the federal government?