The classic conflict that underlies many political debates these days is how to balance what we wish government would do for us with how much we can afford to pay for those government services.
One of those who worries our good intentions may be getting too big for our wallets is state Rep. Patricia L. Morgan, R-West Warwick, who won reelection this month to her second term.
A reader sent us one of her campaign fliers last week, asking us to check one of its claims. The headline on the flier was "Waste and Abuse in Rhode Island Government is hurting our JOB Climate and YOU. Is it Fair?"
The claim that caught our reader’s eye: "Our welfare system now consumes more than 42 percent of our budget."
The flier said such spending was diverting funds that could otherwise be spent on roads, higher education and improving the economic climate for private business.
We wondered what Morgan’s definition of the "welfare system" was and whether it really made up 42 percent of the budget.
When we called Morgan she said she defines welfare as a payment from the government that someone gets without having to work to earn it. That would cover food stamps, free or subsidized childcare, subsidized housing, even the RIPTA bus passes given to participants in Rhode Island IWorks, the welfare and job training program for low-income families, she said.
She said she didn’t do an exhaustive breakdown of all state agencies to arrive at her 42 percent figure. Instead, she used the state House of Representatives fiscal staff’s evaluation of the fiscal 2013 budget as enacted.
She said she took the $3.66 billion the staff calculated the state is set to spend on "assistance, grants and benefits" in 2013 and divided it by the total budget of state and federal spending, around $8.09 billion. "Assistance, grants and benefits" made up 45.2 percent of the budget.
We decided to take a deeper look to see whether Morgan’s number and analysis was on target.
But first, let’s talk about Morgan’s definition of "welfare system." When many people hear the term, they might think of welfare payments to poor people -- now known as Rhode Island Works.
But other programs provide types of direct payments too, such as General Public Assistance, Supplemental Security Income and Individual and Family Support. Combined, those are slated to cost about $562 million in 2013, about 7 percent of the total state budget.
But for purposes of this item, we’ll work with Morgan’s broader definition of welfare as any government payment to an individual.
The House analysis of the budget notes that while most of the $3.6-billion figure Morgan cited is made up of social service aid, it also includes "grants to environmental agencies, local law enforcement agencies."
State Budget Director Thomas Mullaney told us that, in fact, the "assistance, grants and benefits" category includes every grant from every department.
That would include such spending as Federal Emergency Management Agency payments for storm cleanups as well as the legislative grants representatives and senators give out to such groups as Little League teams in their districts.
The House staff analysis actually broke out what it classified as human service-related assistance, grants and benefits -- closer to Morgan’s definition of "welfare system."
They totaled $2.54 billion, or about 31 percent of the total state 2013 budget -- lower than Morgan’s figures. More than half of that, $1.6 billion, was federal money spent on providing Medicaid services to Rhode Island’s poor.
What about the costs for administering these programs? Morgan said the House report says overall, all spending for human services -- including administration -- totals about $3.19 billion, or about 39.3 percent of the budget. Even though some of that money wasn’t going directly to beneficiaries, she said it counted because it was the expense of delivering those benefits.
But that figure includes spending on departments that don’t make payments to individuals, including the Department of Health, the state medical examiner’s office, the Office of Child Advocate and the Office of Child Support Enforcement, which last year helped collect about $80 million in child support owed by deadbeat parents.
We believe the 31 percent figure is more applicable
State Rep. Patricia Morgan says spending on "welfare systems" in Rhode Island accounts for 42 percent of the budget.
Even working with Morgan's broad definition of welfare, our analysis showed that figure is closer to 31 percent.
Why does this matter?
As Morgan’s flier noted, social-service programs, particularly Medicaid, are clearly putting an increasing strain on state and federal taxpayers. That’s a big challenge for lawmakers. It’s important to get the numbers right.
We rule Morgan's statement Half True.