Conservative Think Tanks: Taxpayer Subsidized Mendacity?

Posted by Bob Lord

I don't read conservative think tank studies regularly, so maybe the ones I've read are just a bad sample. Based on my admittedly unscientific sampling, however, it's scandalous that we are allowing tax deductions for folks like the Koch brothers to contribute to the Cato Institute and other conservative think tanks, which then hire dishonest shills to compile pure propaganda pieces promoting the right-wing agenda. 

The BlueMeanie and I both posted a few days ago on a Cato Institute study authored by Michael Tanner, The Work Versus Welfare Trade-off: 2013. BlueMeanie reported on a takedown by Josh Barro at Business Insider. I did my own analysis and reached similar conclusions. My analysis went a bit deeper than Barro's, probably because he had a word limit, but neither of us captured the breathtaking dishonesty of Cato's propaganda. 

I've been able to spend a bit more time with the study. It's breathtaking in its mendacity. Tanner fully intended to deceive the public. No question. In my prior post on the subject, No, It's Not The Welfare, Stupid, I pointed out how Tanner based his analysis on a "prototype" family of a single mother with two children, but implicitly assumed she did not receive child support. Thus, his analysis really applied only to single mothers with two children whose father is dead or a deadbeat. 

It's actually far worse than that. The welfare family Tanner claims to be representative of households in general actually represents a tiny of sliver of the population — the sliver most in need of assistance. 

One of the "welfare" components Tanner included was the Women, Infants and Children Program. That program, however, is limited to women who are pregnant or breast-feeding, and infants and children up to age 5 who are found to be at nutritional risk. 

That whittles Tanner's prototype family down to a single mother with two kids, at least one of who is under 5, and receiving no child support from the children's father. 

But wait, there's more. The item that really drives Tanner's numbers is housing assistance. It's the largest single item in most states and is between one-third and one-half of the total welfare package in those states that populate the top of Tanner's list. In his write-up, however, Tanner reveals that most single women don't qualify for housing assistance. Only North Dakota provides housing assistance to over half its welfare beneficiaries. (North Dakota, ironically, has the lowest unemployment rate in the country, thus undercutting Tanner's theory completely) Most states provide housing assistance to fewer than a quarter of their welfare beneficiaries. Despite this pesky detail, Tanner chose to include the full value of housing assistance as long as the state provided the assistance to more than 10 percent of its welfare beneficiaries.

Here's how absurd that is. Hawaii is the state Tanner depicts as the freeloaders paradise. But the numbers for Hawaii are driven by the state's huge cost of living (160% of the national average) and sky high housing costs. The housing assistance Tanner includes in welfare benefits for Hawaiian moms are very hard to come by. A report on  The State of Poverty in Hawaii finds that the average wait for assisted housing in Hawaii is two to five years. Even according to Tanner's own numbers, only 15% of those Hawaiian mothers actually are receiving housing assistance. 

The bottom line: Tanner intentionally manipulated the data to support his claim that welfare is better than work. He started with the prototype family that most view as the neediest — a single mom with two kids. Then, he narrowed that prototype family down to the absolute most needy single moms. If a single mom received child support, she wasn't included. If her kids were past their tender years and she was not pregnant, she wasn't included. If she was in the majority of single moms whose circumstances are not quite dire enough to qualify for housing assistance, she wasn't included. 

About 50 million or so Americans live close to or below the poverty line in America. Of those 50 million, the number included in Tanner's representative sample, the neediest of the needy, is undoubtedly less than one million, probably far lower.  

Having narrowed down his sample to the neediest of the neediest of the needy, Tanner showed that their welfare benefit package allows them to live somewhere in the vicinity of the poverty level without working. 

Finally, to reach the conclusion he desired, Tanner played a trick. He knew that wages at the low end of the income scale for a single person are typically below povertly level. So he compared the poverty-level welfare benefits received by the neediest of the needy to the below poverty level wages paid to those at the bottom. The logical conclusion to be drawn from this situation would be that wages at the bottom are too low. Tanner, however, turned that logical conclusion on its head and concluded that welfare benefits to those most in need are too high. That's rank intellectual dishonesty on Tanner's part.

Tanner knows well that when his study is
reported in the conservative press, it will be to promote the view that we have
too many welfare moochers who don’t want to work. The conservative press will
never mention that Tanner’s conclusions regarding the relative rewards of welfare and work could be applied only to the tiny sliver
of single mothers with children who are in the most dire need.

Consider what would happen if Tanner were to succeed in his mission and
welfare benefits were cut for single mothers not receiving child support, with
at least one child under five and dependent on housing assistance. If those mothers were unable to work or unable to find work, their young
children would go homeless or hungry or without health care. When children are
malnourished or go to school hungry, they’re robbed of their potential. If
those mothers miraculously found work, the result for their children would be
the same, because those low-end jobs Tanner wants those mothers to take would
leave them living in poverty.

I know Tanner. He was married to my sister
a long time ago. Funny thing is, I don’t remember him having the work ethic he
wants so badly to bestow on single mothers by having their pre-school children
go hungry.  

Cato Institute, the libertarian think tank
that employs Tanner, was founded by Charles Koch and a few others of like mind.
Koch has a net worth approaching $40 Billion. His contributions to Cato were
tax deductible. It just seems crazy that we subsidize with tax dollars a mean
spirited multi-billionaire in the dissemination of propaganda intended to make
the children of poor single mothers go hungry.

I have a better idea. Why don’t we deny Koch
the tax deduction for his contribution to this activity? The tax dollars we
save could be used to continue feeding the children of those poor single
mothers. And if we were really lucky, Koch might cut back on his funding of
Cato, which might then decide to let Michael Tanner go. Then he might have
to take a real job. 

3 responses to “Conservative Think Tanks: Taxpayer Subsidized Mendacity?

  1. It was a great read.

  2. That may be above my pay grade, Mark

  3. Wingnut Welfare.