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Welfare Programs Not Overfunded

For The Heights

Published: Sunday, January 29, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01

During the past year, Congress has repeatedly attempted to work out a plan to reduce or eliminate the massive federal budget deficit. Consequently, many have called for the downsizing of government programs, especially those deemed to be unnecessary or overfunded. Among such programs are those that provide financial aid to the poor.

On Jan. 11, however, Alicia Munnell, the Peter F. Drucker chair in management sciences in the Carroll School of Management, published an article on SmartMoney.com entitled "Do We Really Spend A Lot of Money on Poor People?" to demonstrate exactly how much the federal government does spend on the poor.

Munnell, who also serves as the director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, sought to respond directly to a comment made by New York Times columnist David Brooks. Brooks complained in an editorial that the U.S. government "spends so much on poverty programs that if we just took that money and handed poor people checks, we would virtually eliminate poverty overnight."

While Brooks' larger criticism about the lack of efficacy of certain federal programs might have merit, Munnell's calculations showed that the total federal government funding of programs for the poor could do no such thing.

Federal government spending on programs for the poor in 2010 totaled $196 billion. While this may appear to be an enormous sum, 46.2 million Americans fell below the federally defined poverty line in 2010. These figures work out to an average spending of $4,200 per person in 2010, a sum that could hardly lift any family out of poverty.

Munnell's blog served to emphasize a lack of consistency in the numbers and statistics that are presented to the public by the media and politicians. A current example is the debates over the proposed Keystone Oil Pipeline, whose supporters have argued for it using claims that it would create as many as 100,000 jobs, while its opponents cite predictions of only 2,500 jobs. Munnell's blog served the goal of accountability in the media and politics.

While discussing her article, Munnell was careful to emphasize that David Brooks remains among her favorite writers. Instead, she said, the blog was meant to counter those who say that welfare programs provide an unreasonable amount of financial aid to those living below the poverty line. While the federal deficit is indeed an increasingly problematic concern, $4,200 per person is hardly unnecessary spending in a capitalistic economy that, by definition, leaves some portion of the population without work.

When asked what strategies she might take to combat poverty in the U.S., Munnell expounded on the need for improved quality of public education, particularly in low-income urban areas. Munnell specifically discussed the need to raise teachers' salaries in order to attract more talented men and women to the teaching profession instead of "portraying them as the enemy" for their already meager salaries and benefits.

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