The Washington Post today inflicts some weapons-grade stupidity upon the reading public, with its claim that whites benefit disproportionately — not just in higher gross numbers — from federal welfare programs. The question involves a new study from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Tracy Jan of the Post writes:
Government assistance and tax credits lifted 6.2 million working-class whites out of poverty in 2014, more than any other racial or ethnic demographic. Half of all working-age adults without college degrees lifted out of poverty by safety-net programs are white; nearly a quarter are black and a fifth are Hispanic.
You start to see the obvious problem there, i.e., that half of the adults without college degrees lifted out of poverty by federal welfare programs (oddly specific demographic choice — why exclude the college graduates and, probably more significant, the children?) are white, which is true, but whites are more than 60 percent of the population, while blacks make up 13 percent of the population but nearly twice the share of those lifted out of poverty by welfare programs, while Hispanics are 17 percent of the population but a slightly larger share of the beneficiaries.
But there is another way to twist the numbers: What share of the people in each demographic group who would otherwise be in poverty are above the poverty line thanks to welfare programs? Again, it’s a non-obvious way of evaluating the numbers, but even this does not show what the Washington Post purports to show: In fact, the white and black beneficiary rates on this metric are almost exactly the same: forty-four percent for whites and 43 percent for blacks. The outlier — the real headline — is the relatively low (28 percent) rate of benefit among Hispanics.
Well-done, Hispanics! Unless . . .
If you guessed that the Hispanic rate is relatively low mostly because illegal immigrants are not eligible for most welfare programs, there’s a Ph.D. in Obviousness Studies waiting for you at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box (or in the ninth paragraph of the Post’s story). If you guessed that whites benefit more from federal income-support programs because they are as a group older and earn more money (and hence get higher Social Security payments), then you are on a roll.
In fact, there is almost nothing of real interest in the data here. This is instead an almost purely ideological exercise: It is an article of faith on the Left that poor whites are so gobsmacked by Jesus talk and racial dog-whistling on the part of Republican politicians that they — inevitable cliché — “vote against their own interests.” There is a lot of question-begging in that: I think Social Security and Medicare are stupid and destructive programs, but I might very well benefit from them someday. (Maybe. Maybe not.) Am I “voting against my own interests” if I prioritize my values — what I think would be good for the country — above the possibility of a monthly check? And why do we never hear about rich progressives “voting against their own interests” instead of lining up with Grover Norquist on tax questions? If I am a food-stamp recipient who thinks Larry Kudlow has it right on economic policy, and that Kudlow-nomics might produce the kind of robust economic conditions that would allow me to get off food stamps, am I “voting against my own interests” if I follow Kudlow’s lead on Election Day?
Even if we believed that continued dependency were in the interest of poor people, is that their only interest?
Either Tracy Jan and the Post got snookered on this one or they are playing along with an exercise in political rhetoric masquerading as an exercise in social research. In either case, this is shoddy work of which they should be embarrassed.