The Welfare President
“[T]here are 47 percent who are with [President Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement.” Enter Mitt Romney’s latest lightning rod comments, captured in a video (shown above) shot secretly at a fundraiser mainly comprised of wealthy donors. Romney went on to claim that those 47 percent of people would support the incumbent president no matter what, paid no taxes, and that it was Romney’s job, “not to worry about those people.” That’s a direct quote. One which Romney basically restated in a defense of his statements yesterday. By the time this post is published, there will be hundreds of commentaries on Romney’s comments, and the subject will probably be well-chewed and digested long before the lunch hour. But I want to talk about why the statements are important in terms of the ongoing socioeconomic and racial battles in this country.
This is really the first explicit outlining of a core Republican belief that has been dominant for at least the past four years, and is based on a skewed racial and economic view that has been echoed by folks like Rick Perry, Paul Ryan, Herman Cain, and countless conservative pundits. It’s why we hear Republicans often refer to welfare using the propagandish term “safety net”, which implies that poverty should be a temporary state that all people can rise from with enough hard work. It’s part of an ongoing effort to paint the country as an entitlement state where most of the poor are so because of some cultural or work ethic deficiency, and are thus undeserving of the entitlements so generously paid for by “hard-working”, wealthier Americans (or job-creators, as they’re often called). The champion of the welfare state? President Barack Obama, the man with the funny name and the “anti-colonialist, African” viewpoint who is being portrayed as the Welfare President. And surprise! Romney’s “Lazy 47” includes large swaths of minorities and his “Good 53” is composed of decent, hard-working, mostly White folks.
But let’s actually break this thing down with numbers.
First off, have we morphed into a welfare state, and is Obama the Welfare President? By any measure, the answer is a resounding no. According to National Health and Human Services, the programs that we refer to as “welfare” (now TANF) have declined every year since 1975 and sits somewhere under $300/mo per family that receives a benefit, well below any major cities subsidized housing market cost. Add to that food stamps (SNAP) payout, which has always been a more robust benefit of around $470/mo, and you have a family of four that receives a grand total of $770/mo in government handouts, or a yearly total of $9,240; that’s less than I as a single adult with an entry-level job will pay in federal and state income taxes this year. Those receiving these benefits total 4.4 million, down from over 5 million at the start of the Bush presidency, despite a two-percentage point increase in poverty. Let me say that again: despite an increase of over 10 million impoverished people, welfare beneficiaries went down by half a million. Some welfare state. Food stamps and TANF welfare total up to an annual budget somewhere around $90 billion, which slightly outpaces the costs for the F-22 fighter jet program in cost. Of course there are Medicaid, Social Security and Medicare added into welfare, but those payments are to people largely deemed as the Victorian-style “deserving poor”: children, disabled individuals and the elderly.
Now, lets look at who these “Lazy 47” are, really. Romney claims that about 47 percent of Americans pay no income tax and are thus freeloading off Americans who are taxed. This number is almost correct; 46 percent of Americans don’t pay income taxes. But income taxes aren’t all there is. First, everyone pays sale tax, which can consume between 5-10 percent of dollars spent on goods, a non-trivial amount. Also, as Ezra Klein of my favorite blog, the Wonkbook at Washington Post, explains of the Lazy 47, most pay payroll taxes to entitlements…meaning they should certainly qualify as entitled to use them. Another portion of this group is the elderly, who don’t pay income or payroll taxes because they are retired. After breaking the numbers down, only around 8 percent of Americans do not pay into our large entitlement funds because they don’t make enough or don’t work (certainly not counting the percentage of the wealthy who don’t pay income or payroll taxes either). As for the claim or the popular notion that the poor are somehow poor because of laziness, according to the recent Current Population Survey by the US Census, only about 15 percent of American non-elderly adults simply don’t work. Among the non-elderly adults in poverty, 61 percent (16 million people) did not work, but a fourth of those people were sidelined by disability. Among the able-bodied poor, this number is reduced to 12 million people, or about 45 percent of the poor population. Now, I don’t have data on why these people aren’t working, but even if you take Romney logic to the extreme (and say they’re not working because they simply don’t want to), then less than half of the poorest 26 million people in this country receive benefits without effort. That’s about 4 percent of the total population. Far from Romney’s Lazy 47.
Philosophically, we all know what this is. It’s an attack, plain and simple, on folks who work damn hard and still come up short. It’s an overture to racist and classist notions of welfare queens and lazy minorities living in the slums. And overall, it’s an effort to attack President Obama on the qualities of his “otherness”. It characterizes the values of non-whites as foreign and something that the Republicans and their largely White base must wage war on to take back “their” country (a point echoed ad nauseum at the Republican Convention). In essence, Romney is saying that the poor — especially poor minorities who support the president — are poor because they are lazy and are jealous freeloaders on the backs of hard-working (read: White) natives (like Romney himself…who had to work so hard to overcome being the son of one of the wealthiest men in America), and that Obama is Commander-In-Thief. If you can’t see the different -isms at work here, I don’t really know what to tell you.
I’m not trying to get anyone to change their favorite animal, and the point of this piece isn’t to endorse the president. I just fear that the racist and classist “fringe” elements of a near-majority group are (again) becoming mainstream enough for a presidential candidate to endorse them. Everyone’s station isn’t afforded to them based solely on hard work; not every “successful” person worked hard, and not every poor person is poor because of a deficiency. There are people toiling hard daily to make things work, live good family lives and raise their children well who still come up short. Shouldn’t it be a primary function of government to ensure that they can survive? They aren’t the enemy.