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Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher December 30, 2012

Anti-poverty spending could give poor $22,000 checks, Rep. Paul Ryan says

In a speech shortly after the presidential election, Republican vice-presidential contender Paul Ryan decried what he called the government’s ineffective approach to fighting poverty, saying spending alone isn’t the answer.

"Just last year, total federal and state spending on means-tested programs came to over $1 trillion," the Wisconsin congressman and House Budget Committee chairman said Dec. 4, 2012, referring to programs that have eligibility based on income.

"What does that mean in practical terms? For that amount of money, you could give every single poor American a check for $22,000 -- every man, woman and child."


Let’s check Ryan’s math.

Ryan’s evidence

To begin with, a little background:

-- Ryan made his indictment at a time when poverty is at one of its highest rates in decades. In 2011, 46.2 million people, or 15 percent of the U.S. population, lived in poverty.

-- For 2012, the income levels to be eligible for certain anti-poverty programs was $11,170 for a single person and $23,050 for a family of four.

-- More than half of Americans -- 51 percent, according to an October 2012 Rasmussen poll -- think the government spends too much fighting poverty. That’s up from 38 percent in an April 2011 Rasmussen survey.

As for the numbers in Ryan’s speech, it turns out he had used them before -- on the campaign trail less than a month before the election.

Here’s the evidence Ryan spokesman Kevin Seifert provided us to back the two numbers.

How much was spent: Some $1.03 trillion was spent on means-tested programs for the poor in 2011, Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee said in October 2012.

Most of that amount -- $746 billion -- was federal spending, based on a detailed memo by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, with the committee itself estimating that states picked up the remainder of the $1 trillion.

But it’s not as though all of that money was being given to people in poverty as cash or food. The largest category was for health care, primarily through Medicaid.

How many in poverty: Ryan cited census data, noting as we did earlier that 46.2 million people lived in poverty in 2011.

From there, Ryan takes the $1.03 trillion and divides it by 46.2 million people living in poverty. The result, he says, is each poor person could have been written a check for $22,000.

The math itself is accurate, and there’s no dispute about the number of people in poverty.

But let’s go to some experts for a closer look.
The conservative Heritage Foundation calculates the cost of means-tested federal and state spending on welfare programs in 2011 as $927 billion, with half the amount going to health care.

Michael Tanner, a senior fellow with the libertarian Cato Institute, puts the 2011 anti-poverty spending figure at $952 billion -- although he counted local government spending as well as money spent by the federal and state governments. That amounts to $20,610 for every poor person, Tanner wrote.

So, both groups give support to Ryan’s claim, although their spending figures are somewhat lower than Ryan’s claim of $1 trillion.

The liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research says that even if the $1 trillion is accurate, it is spent on "a population that is more than twice the size" of the 46 million people living in poverty. That’s because two of the major programs, Medicaid and the earned income tax credit, have income eligibility limits above the poverty line.

Moreover, some of the $1 trillion, the center said, is paid to school districts and other institutions to help educate the poor -- the poor themselves don’t get the money.

LaDonna Pavetti, a family income support researcher at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said of Ryan’s claim: "It’s not so much the numbers as what he does with them."

Noting that the single largest portion of spending cited by Ryan is on health care, Pavetti pointed out that the largest Medicaid expenditures are made on people who live in nursing homes and other institutions -- they, by definition, are not included in the number of people living in poverty.

And the list of programs Ryan includes in his $1 trillion in spending "is sort of anything and everything that is targeted to low-income people," Pavetti said. That includes money that aids schools and low-income communities but do not directly benefit the poor, she said.

Our rating

Ryan said "over $1 trillion" was spent on anti-poverty programs in 2011, enough to "give every single poor American a check for $22,000."

As a sweeping statement, Ryan’s claim is partially accurate, in that roughly $1 trillion was spent on means-tested programs, and if you divided that by the number of people living in poverty, it would amount to roughly $22,000 per person.

But Ryan mixes apples and oranges, in that the $1 trillion is actually spent on far more people than the 46 million counted as living in poverty. Moreover, much of the money goes to institutions, such as nursing homes and schools, and not directly into the pockets of the poor.

We rate Ryan’s statement Half True.

Our Sources

C-SPAN, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan speech (at 18:15) Dec. 4, 2012

Census Bureau, "Poverty Status, by Family Relationship, Race, and Hispanic Origin: 1959 to 2011"

Census Bureau, "People in poverty by selected characteristics: 2010 and 2011"

Rasmussen Reports, "51 percent think government spends too much on poverty programs," Oct. 23, 2012

Email interview, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan press secretary Kevin Seifert, Dec. 6, 2012

Congressional Research Service, memo to Senate Budget Committee, Oct. 16, 2012

Cato Institute, "The American Welfare State," April 11, 2012

The Nation, "Bigfoot, Nessie and Paul Ryan," Oct. 26, 2012

The Hill, "Study shows 33 percent spending increase in federal poverty programs," Oct. 18, 2012

Center for Economic and Policy Research, "Bad arithmetic on the battle against poverty," Oct. 11, 2012

Email interview, Tax Policy Center senior fellow Roberton Williams, Dec. 14, 2012

Email interview, University of Michigan population studies research professor Sheldon Danziger, Dec. 14, 2012

Email interview, Reason Foundation director of communications Chris Mitchell, Dec. 14, 2012

PolitiFact New Jersey, "Sen. Barbara Buono says nation’s poverty rate is at its highest level since 1964," Dec. 3, 2012

Interview, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities vice president for family income support policy LaDonna Pavetti, Dec. 18, 2012

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Anti-poverty spending could give poor $22,000 checks, Rep. Paul Ryan says

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