New lie: The government spends more on welfare than everything else!

Senate Republicans redefine "welfare" to make it sound very expensive

Published October 18, 2012 9:52PM (EDT)

         (<a href=''>Orhan Cam</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Orhan Cam via Shutterstock)

You are probably going to start hearing a hot new lie from Republicans soon: The government spends more money on welfare than on anything else, even the military!

This is the apparently conclusion of a new report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (the same organization that recently said that Obama's supposed "welfare reform gutting" was totally legal!), though in fact it is a claim made by Senate Republicans who are abusing the nonpartisan research of the CRS. Here's the story in the Weekly Standard, complete with charts from the Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee. Here's the story in the Daily Caller, which is more upfront about all the material coming from Senate Republicans and not from the CRS. And here's a Weekly Standard follow-up with some new charts.

They claim that "welfare spending" is the "largest budget item" for the federal government, with the fed spending $745.84 billion, more than is spent on Social Security, Medicare and "non-war defense." (Hah.) Plus: "In all, the U.S. government, including federal and state governments, spends in excess of $1 trillion on welfare."

That is a lot of welfare spending! Those poor people must be rolling in dough, right?

In the context of political discussions, "welfare" traditionally (as in pretty much always) refers specifically to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, the federal program that was created in 1996 to replace the Aid to Families With Dependent Children program -- also known as "welfare" -- that had existed since the New Deal. This is what people refer to when they say "welfare caseloads" and "welfare rolls," and when conservatives accuse Obama of gutting "welfare reform" they are referring to TANF. The federal government spends $16.5 billion a year on TANF and, combined, the states spend another $10 billion.

Most of the federal budget is "defense" and war spending and Medicare, which should be common knowledge but that fact is regularly obscured by right-wingers who claim to be deficit hawks but refuse to cut defense spending and are scared of proposing real reductions to our programs for old people. This is how you get poll results where people think most of what the federal government spends money on is "foreign aid" and public broadcasting. So this is obviously just an attempt to rebrand "everything else" as "welfare."

(On a state level, the majority of money goes, unsurprisingly, to healthcare and education. Less is spent on actual "public assistance" than is spent on prisons.)

The con is pretty easy to see when you read the actual CRS report. Senate Republicans are counting 83 separate (and wildly different) programs as "welfare" in order to make the case that the government is spending more on poor people than old people. The majority of this money is Medicaid and CHIP, which are healthcare spending, which is increasing for the same reason that Medicare spending is increasing, which is that healthcare costs are increasing. (And Medicaid is much less generous than Medicare, because it is a program for poor people, not old people.) But so many other things now also count as welfare, including Pell Grants, public works spending, Head Start, child support enforcement, the Child Tax Credit, Foster Care assistance, housing for old people, and much more. They're also counting the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is, traditionally, the form of "welfare" that conservative Republicans actually support. Basically, all social spending (though specifically not spending on rich old people or on healthcare for veterans with service-related disabilities, which Republicans requested be excluded from the CRS report) now counts as "welfare."

So we've learned that when you count everything -- especially Medicaid and CHIP -- as "welfare," it is easy to make it look like "welfare" is very expensive, because healthcare is very expensive. This dumb lie will live forever, and you will hear until the end of your days that "the government spends more on welfare than it does on defense."

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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