David Brooks’ Really Bad Math

In a characteristically meandering column that basically makes the case Freddie Gray’s moral pathology led–sadly, to be sure–to his death, David Brooks makes one of those assertions that reminds you of Ronald Reagan and his little index cards with “facts” from Human Events:

Since 1980 federal antipoverty spending has exploded. As Robert Samuelson of The Washington Post has pointed out, in 2013 the federal government spent nearly $14,000 per poor person. If you simply took that money and handed it to the poor, a family of four would have a household income roughly twice the poverty rate.

Yet over the last 30 years the poverty rate has scarcely changed.

Dean Baker blows that up with dispatch:

If NYT columnists were expected to be accurate when they talked about government programs, Brooks would have been forced to tell readers that around 40 percent of these payments are Medicaid payments that go directly to doctors and other health care providers. We pay twice as much per person for our health care as people in other wealthy countries, with little to show in the way of outcomes. We can think of these high health care costs as a generous payment to the poor, but what this actually means is that every time David Brooks’ cardiologist neighbor raises his fees, David Brooks will complain about how we are being too generous to the poor.

The other point that an honest columnist would be forced to make is that the vast majority of these payments do not go to people who are below the poverty line and therefore don’t count in the denominator for his “poor person” calculation. The cutoff for Medicaid is well above the poverty level in most states. The same is true for food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and most of the other programs that make up Brooks’ $14,000 per person figure. In other words, he has taken the spending that goes to a much larger population and divided it by the number of people who are classified as poor.

If Brooks actually wants to tell readers what we spend on poor people, it’s not hard to find the data. The average family of three on TANF gets less than $500 a month. The average food stamp benefit is $133 per person. If low income people are working, they can get around $5,000 a year from the EITC for a single person with two children at the poverty level. (They would get less at lower income levels.)

These programs account for the vast majority of federal government payments to poor people. It won’t get you anywhere near David Brooks’ $14,000 per person per year, but why spoil a good story with facts?

Sad thing is no telling how many people will read Brooks’ column and whether or not they absorb the exact numbers or understand their misleading character, they’ll retain the vague impression that everybody knows you could cash out anti-poverty programs and save everybody a lot of money–or hell, maybe just kill the programs outright and keep the change instead of giving it to po’ folks who are incorrigible unless somebody gets in there and makes them behave.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.