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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press Problems With the War on Poverty: Big Numbers Without Context

Problems With the War on Poverty: Big Numbers Without Context

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Wednesday, 08 January 2014 06:01

As we mark the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, it would be appropriate to note one of the main causes of its limited success, using big numbers without context. The issue here is a simple one; most people think that we have committed vastly more resources than is in fact the case to fighting this war. As a result, they are reasonably (based on their understanding) reluctant to contribute more resources.

Polls consistently show the public hugely exaggerates the share of the budget that goes to programs like Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) or food stamps. They believe that these anti-poverty programs are responsible for a large share of the budget when in reality their impact is marginal. (TANF accounts for about 0.4 percent of federal spending and food stamps account for 2.1 percent.) This is partly due to the fact that these items are always reported as millions or billions of dollars, which are very large numbers that few people can conceptualize. They are rarely reported as shares of the total budget.

As a result of exaggerating their importance to the budget, the public is less likely to support anti-poverty programs. They see them as a big part of their tax bill, thinking that their taxes, or at least the deficit, would decrease substantially if we spent less on these programs.

They also reasonably question their effectiveness. If we were actually spending one-third of the budget on anti-poverty programs and still had so many poor people, then the public would be right to question whether this was a good use of their tax dollars.

The NYT has committed itself to expressing large budget numbers in a context that will make them understandable to readers. It remains to be seen whether they will follow through on this commitment. If they do, and the rest of the media follow suit, it will have a substantial impact on the public's understanding of the War on Poverty.

Comments (6)Add Comment
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written by JDM, January 08, 2014 6:59
It's been a while now since the NYT made this "commitment" but they don't seem to have actually done it. That makes me wonder if they understand what the word commitment means.


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written by liberal, January 08, 2014 8:17
There's no war on poverty. There's a war for poverty. Government gives landowners literally trillions of dollar/yr for doing absolutely nothing, while collecting sales tax from the poor. Simultaneously, local governments have crazy zoning rules which restrict the supply of housing.

It's been clear for more than 100 years how to abolish or at least drastically curtail poverty---tax rents (in particular, land rent) as much as possible, and use to revenue to fund government acting on behalf of its citizens. Too bad no one seems to understand this.
Waste, Fraud and Abuse
written by bakho, January 08, 2014 8:54
A substantial portion of the public believes the programs are riddled with welfare queens and healthy young bucks driving luxury cars. They believe that too many people are getting something they don't deserve. The Democrats today are not doing enough to break down that narrative. Clinton sold aid to the working poor with the slogan, "Make work pay" and took steps to move toward full employment. With both parties, there is too much emphasis on the deficit and not enough emphasis on employment. Republicans are starting to fill the void with harebrained schemes for producing jobs. Completely bogus, but when the competition isn't discussing jobs this is what we get.

For many conservatives it is a matter of principle. They would rather kill a program that helps a lot of people that give a few people extra crumbs they don't deserve.
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written by John Q, January 08, 2014 9:21
We have lost the war on poverty and are now ruled by the rich because our current President have failed to use his bully pulpit in any meaningful way.
why not include the war on equality...50 year anniversary of peak equality...
written by pete, January 08, 2014 12:18
This also started in 1968, peak income equality in the US. Is it a coincidence that programs which were supposedly designed to decrease poverty actually did so in only a post transfer measure, so that inequality was more or less encouraged?
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written by JQP, January 15, 2014 5:48
I sat in my car the other day, shaking my head, as I listened to the NPR clique talk about this without mentioning how difficult it is to fight a "War on Poverty" while importing it on a massive scale.

And you've managed to do a "critique" in which the word "immigration" does not appear.

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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.

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