One of the best articles I ever wrote was, I Was a Middle Class Food Stamp Kid. In it, I discussed how my parents owned a 7-11 when I was a kid. There were lots of people who lived near by and they spent food stamps to pay for stuff. That helped them, and that was great. But the truth of the matter is that those food stamps helped everyone — most especially my family. I estimated that 5% of the store’s gross income came from food stamps — probably more than our entire margin. It is a sad thing that people like me tend to look down on poor people who are dependent upon SNAP benefits, even while they help us as much if not more.
On Friday, David Brooks wrote, The Nature of Poverty. As the totally clueless commentator that he is, he thinks he has a big ol’ scoop. You see, silly people like Jon Stewart complain that we aren’t doing enough about poverty in this country. But Brooks has some news for you, “Since 1980 federal antipoverty spending has exploded… in 2013 the federal government spent nearly $14,000 per poor person.” If we just gave that money to poor families, they would be middle class!
It should come as no surprise that Brooks concluded his column, “The world is waiting for a thinker who can describe poverty through the lens of social psychology.” That’s because it isn’t his conclusion. This is his unspoken postulate mascaraing as a conclusion. Where have we heard this sort of thing before, “Individuals are left without the norms that middle-class people take for granted.” Oh, that’s right: the last time David Brooks “tackled” the issue. It’s always about social dysfunction among the poor — the causation never goes the other way. Why would it? The whole point is to tax the rich as little as possible and to tell the poor to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
But as Dean Baker was quick to point out, Brooks’ statistic was nonsense, David Brooks and the Federal Government’s $14,000 Per Year Per Poor Person. A shocking 40% of it is in the form of Medicaid. That is money that doesn’t go to the poor but rather “directly to doctors and other health care providers.” It is true that the poor get medical care, but the cost is so high because doctors make twice in America what they make in the rest of the advanced world.
So this is a situation like mine growing up in a 7-11 store. What we have here is welfare for the well off that people like David Brooks pretends is done for the poor. To him, somehow doctors’ salaries would go down if only poor children did better on the marshmallow challenge. This is just a way for rich people to justify doing nothing while pretending to care.
As for the other 60%, well, it isn’t as Brooks claimed either. That total $14,000 claim is based upon taking all of the money that we spend on programs for lower income people, and then dividing it by the much smaller number of people below the poverty line. So they don’t actually get that much money. As Baker noted, we are a stingy society, “The average family of three on TANF gets less than $500 a month. The average food stamp benefit is $133 per person.”
Paul Krugman later pointed out that the funding for these programs have all basically been flat — except for Medicaid, and it has only been going up because healthcare costs are going up, not the amount of service. He provided this helpful graph:
So people like Jon Stewart are right. And David Brooks is just a jerk.