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An Enduring (and False) Welfare Narrative

Where are these welfare programs that people are supposedly living off of?

Maybe we were unfair to Mitt Romney – Jeb “people need to work longer hours” Bush is making him look like a model of empathy for the less fortunate. All the obvious points apply: Longer hours would mean more gross domestic product (if and when the economy ever gets back to full employment), but not necessarily better lives, especially if the increase in GDP doesn’t trickle down.

But I think it’s also important to understand where this is coming from. Partly it’s Mr. Bush, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, trying to defend his foolish “4 percent growth” claim; but it’s also, I’m almost certain, coming out of the “nation of takers” dogma that completely dominates America’s right wing.

During a recent debate I had with Stephen Moore of the Heritage Foundation, one of the questions posed by the moderator was, if I remember it correctly, “What would you do about America’s growing underclass living off welfare?”

When I said that the premise was wrong, that this isn’t actually happening, there was general incredulity – this is part of what the right knows is happening. When Mr. Bush talks about people working more hours, he’s probably thinking largely about getting the “bums” on welfare out there working.

But, as I asked a few months ago, where are these welfare programs that people are supposedly living off of? The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program is tiny; what’s left are the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps and unemployment benefits.

Spending on food stamps and unemployment insurance soared during the economic slump, but it came down quickly. And overall spending on “income security” has shown no trend at all as a share of GDP.

But isn’t there an epidemic of people declaring themselves disabled? Actually, no. You have to bear in mind the reality that people don’t stay perfectly healthy until they reach 65 or 70, or whatever age plutocrats think they should work until. As all of us pre-seniors can attest, things start to go wrong with increasing frequency all along the life cycle; sometimes they can be managed, but often they can’t, especially for manual workers. And if you look at age-adjusted disability rates, they have been flat or even declining.

Of course, none of these facts will make a dent in the right-wing narrative: They just know that the rising number of “bums” on welfare is a problem, even though there basically isn’t any welfare, and there are no more “bums” than there ever were.

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