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Paul Krugman | Debunking the “Nation of Takers” Myth

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the war on poverty, provoking a flurry of studies correcting some widespread myths.

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the war on poverty in the United States, and the date provoked a flurry of studies correcting some widespread myths. Perhaps the most notable was an enlightening progress report from the Council of Economic Advisers.

What needed correcting? Basically, the “nation of takers” narrative, according to which we have been contributing ever-greater sums toward helping the poor, all without making a dent in the poverty rate.

The reality is that spending on “income security” – which includes virtually everything that you could construe as aid to people with low incomes, except Medicaid – has basically been flat for decades, with a temporary (and appropriate) spurt due to unemployment benefits and food stamps during the Great Recession.

If you don’t believe this, think about it: Where are these big anti-poverty programs? We have food stamps and the earned-income tax credit. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, a successor to old-fashioned welfare, is a shadow of the former program. So, outside health care, where are the huge sums we’re supposedly spending?

Meanwhile, it’s not true that poverty has remained unchanged; the official measure is known to be flawed, and a better one from the U.S. Census Bureau shows progress, although not as much as we’d like.

So it is somewhat disheartening to see this thoroughly debunked narrative emerging in some of the Baltimore-inspired discussion.

Paranoia Strikes Deep

You may think that the big news story lately has been the protests in Baltimore – or, if you have different priorities, either Kate’s baby or the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight. But in certain circles, the big thing has been the right-wing belief that operation Jade Helm 15, a military training exercise in Texas, is a cover for President Obama to seize control of the state and force its citizens to accept universal health care at gunpoint.

No, really – and this is being taken seriously both by Ted Cruz, the Republican senator and presidential candidate, and by the governor, who has ordered the Texas State Guard to keep watch on the feds and their possibly nefarious activities.

Before you pooh-pooh this, think about what would happen to a Democratic politician who gave similar credence to a left-wing conspiracy theory this far out. I can’t even think of what that theory might be.

And this isn’t an isolated incident. You should think of the panic over the Obamacare black helicopters as being part of a continuum that runs through inflation truthers like Harvard historian Niall Ferguson and conservative author Amity Shlaes, who insist that the government is cooking the economic books, to quantitative easing conspiracy theorists like (sadly) the economist John Taylor and Representative Paul Ryan, who declare that Ben Bernanke, the former head of the Federal Reserve, only enacted the policy to bail out Mr. Obama, to the general prevalence of “inflation derp,” the insistence that hyperinflation is just around the corner despite more than six years of failed predictions.

There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear. But it’s quite remarkable, and pretty scary.

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