Donald Trump’s budget calls for cutting funding for the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutrition program by $3.5 billion over the next decade. WIC is a program that serves over 8 million low–income children and pregnant women; it has been shown to improve health for children, as well as educational outcomes as they grow older.
The proposed cut would reduce projected spending by roughly 5 percent over the next decade. That may sound insignificant, but for the beneficiaries of the program it is a big deal.
WIC is an efficient, well-run program. If spending is cut by 5 percent, it probably means that the number of beneficiaries will drop by around 5 percent, or 400,000 per year. That means 400,000 fewer children and pregnant mothers would benefit from access to food supplementation from this vital nutrition program. That is especially bad news for those without family support to help make up the gap.
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Meanwhile, the $3.5 billion that taxpayers would save through the cuts to the program would only add up to roughly $1 per person per year — hardly grounds for a spending spree. The whole WIC program comes to a bit more than 0.1 percent of the federal budget. In terms of the federal budget, this is chump change.
It would be helpful if discussions of WIC and other items in the budget would use numbers that are meaningful to people, rather than just repeat really big numbers that are meaningless to almost everyone who is not a budget wonk.
When most people see $3.5 billion they think it is a lot of money. After all, the overwhelming majority of people in this country will never see a sum anything like this. But, in the context of the behemoth federal budget, this sum over 10 years barely matters.
The problem of context extends beyond the example of WIC. Since it is standard practice to report budget numbers only as millions, billions, or trillions, most people do not have a clue about where their tax dollars are going. While they think a large share of the budget is going to programs that help the poor, like Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the reality is that such programs are small items in the budget. TANF accounts for less than 0.4 percent of federal spending and SNAP a bit more than 1.5 percent.
Part of the confusion is due to racist attitudes. Some people want to believe that all of their tax dollars are going to the undeserving poor, whom they imagine to be primarily non-white. Therefore, they want to believe that these anti-poverty programs are a big part of the budget, regardless of what the numbers say.
However, there are many people who are not racist, including many who support these programs, who think anti-poverty programs are a much larger share of the budget than is actually the case. This is because they don’t know how large the budget is, and they know that numbers in the millions and billions are really large.
This problem could be easily addressed if the media made a point of expressing these numbers in a context that was understandable to their audience, such as reporting them as a share of the budget or as a per person cost. It is truly incredible that major news outlets, like the New York Times, NPR, and the Washington Post, insist on reporting budget numbers in a way that they know is meaningless to the vast majority of their audience.
This problem is not new or unheard of by major news outlets. In response to a public campaign, Margaret Sullivan, who was then the public editor of the New York Times, took up this issue. She strongly agreed that the paper often printed numbers that were meaningless to most readers. Her piece included a quote from David Leonhardt, who was then the Washington editor for the paper:
“…‘the human mind isn’t equipped’ to deal with very large numbers. When people see these numbers, he said, they read it as ‘a lot of money’ or ‘a really big number.’”
Sullivan and Leonhardt both agreed that the paper needed to put numbers, especially big budget numbers, in a context that would be understandable to readers. Incredibly, in spite of the strongly worded comments of the paper’s public editor and Washington editor, nothing changed.
Getting the media to report on budget numbers in ways that mean something to their audience should be a winnable battle, and one worth engaging in for people who care about WIC and other programs that benefit low–income people.
We can assume that somewhere around one–third of the public hates these programs and would not want a single penny of tax dollars to go them. Another third supports these programs and would be willing to pay a substantial amount of taxes to sustain them. The last third has mixed thoughts on anti-poverty programs. They would be willing to support them if they think they are efficient and not very expensive but opposed if they think these programs are causing them to pay high taxes.
It is this last group that most needs to be better informed about the true cost of these programs. If people are interested in sustaining anti-poverty programs, the most effective route might be to get the media to do its job and report budget numbers in a way that is meaningful to their audience.