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Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher May 26, 2011

Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald says half of state residents are “on some kind of government handout”

Addressing the Wisconsin Republican Party’s annual convention on May 21, 2011, state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, reflected on the transformational 2010 elections. The GOP swept to power, taking from Democrats the governor’s office as well as control of the Senate and Assembly.

"That election needed to happen. Our country is facing challenges we simply can’t ignore," Fitzgerald told hundreds of convention-goers at a Wisconsin Dells resort.

"Our government is growing too fast, too big; it’s becoming too expensive. One out of every five people in Wisconsin are on Medicaid or Medicare. One out of every two are on some kind of government handout."

One out of every two people in Wisconsin -- half the state’s residents -- receive a "government handout?"

That’s a lot of Wisconsinites.

We asked Fitzgerald’s spokesman, Andrew Welhouse, for evidence to back up the statement. Welhouse initially said his boss’ claim "looks wrong, but the larger conversation about entitlements and government spending is long overdue."

That’s not much of a defense.

Welhouse did cite this passage from an April 2011 analysis of federal data done by USA Today:

"A record 18.3 percent of the nation's total personal income was a payment from the government for Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, unemployment benefits and other programs in 2010. Wages accounted for the lowest share of income — 51 percent — since the government began keeping track in 1929."

That all may be true. But it’s off point.  

The article indicates what percentage of Americans’ overall income comes from the government. But it says nothing about what percentage of individual Wisconsinites -- or Americans, for that matter -- receive government assistance.

We told Welhouse we still wanted to know what Fitzgerald defined as government handouts. When he called back, he said Fitzgerald told him he had meant to say that one in six Wisconsin residents -- not one in two -- get government handouts.

Welhouse didn’t say what Fitzgerald considered as handouts, but he provided another USA Today article, from August 2010. Analyzing state data, the newspaper found that government anti-poverty programs such as welfare, Medicaid, food stamps and unemployment insurance served a record one in six Americans.

The article makes no mention of Wisconsin, however.

We contacted state agencies to see how many Wisconsinites receive government assistance from the four major programs cited in the second article that Welhouse provided. Here’s what we found:

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  • Medicaid: 1,174,874 people, including more than 465,000 children, receive Medicaid, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Medicaid, including the state’s BadgerCare programs, pays for health care for low-income people.
  • Food stamps: 802,979 people, including 353,310 children, were in the FoodShare program as of March 2011, according to the same department.
  • Unemployment insurance: 140,055 people are on unemployment, according to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.
  • Wisconsin Works (W-2), which replaced traditional welfare: 43,093 people, including 27,614 children, were receiving W-2 cash assistance as of April 2011, according to the Wisconsin Department of Children & Families.

Since Wisconsin has about 5.65 million people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, that means roughly one in five state residents is on Medicaid alone.

If you added the recipients in all four programs, the total would represent 2.16 million people, or more than one in three Wisconsinites. That would still be far short of the one in two that Fitzgerald claimed at the convention.

But the true figure is lower than 2.16 million because some people receive assistance from more than one of the programs. Based on the available information, we could not determine an exact number – nor could Fitzgerald.

We also contacted experts at four private organizations in Wisconsin that track government programs. None said they were aware of any study that attempted to determine what percentage of Wisconsin residents receives government assistance or a "government handout."

All of this is setting aside the question of what constitutes a handout, which is a subjective term.

The article cited by Fitzgerald’s aide to support the 1-in-2 claim included Social Security and Medicare, both of which workers pay into through payroll taxes. Many people would not consider those programs handouts.

Here’s the bottom line:

Fitzgerald made a bold statement at the state GOP convention -- that one out of every two Wisconsin residents "is on some kind of government handout." He was able to provide no evidence to back the claim, and even one of his aides essentially acknowledged it was wrong. The Senate leader later provided a different number, but the data he relied on is not specific to Wisconsin.

We rate Fitzgerald’s statement False.

Our Sources

WisconsinEye, video(at 1:18:30) of Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgeraldspeech to Wisconsin Republican Party convention, May 21, 2011

Interview and e-mail interview, Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald communications director Andrew Welhouse, May 23, 2011

Interview, Wisconsin Council on Children & Families research director Jon Peacock, May 23, 2011

Interview, Institute for Wisconsin’s Future research director Jack Norman, May 23, 2011

Email interview, Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance president Todd Berry, May 24, 2011

Email interview, Wisconsin Policy Research Institute fellow Christian Schneider, May 24, 2011

USA Today, "Americans depend more on federal aid than ever," April 26, 2011

USA Today, "Record number in government anti-poverty programs," Aug. 30, 2010

Fiscal Times, "Budget deficit: Government handouts top tax income," April 18, 2011

U.S. Census Bureau, 2009 Wisconsin population estimate

Email interview, Wisconsin Department of Health Services spokeswoman Beth Kaplan, May 24 and 25 , 2011

Interview and email interview, Wisconsin Department of Children & Family Services spokeswoman Stephanie Hayden, May 24, 2011

Email interview, Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development spokesman John Dipko, May 24, 2011

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Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald says half of state residents are “on some kind of government handout”

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