The mythmongers in Tea Party land and millions more Americans seem to prefer fiction to fact.
Based on a mid-April New York Times/CBS News poll of about 1,600 adults, we learned that 52 percent of Tea Party supporters believe "too much has been made of the problems facing black people." Could it be because 89 percent of the Partyers polled are white? They also have above-average incomes: 31 percent of Tea Partyers earn more than $75,000 a year, as opposed to 26 percent of all poll respondents. A cool 68 percent of Tea Partyers consider themselves middle-class or above. And they’re very angry about government spending. As one woman says, "I’m sick and tired of them wasting money" (though she probably doesn’t want her Medicare or Social Security touched).
If the Tea Partyers think too much is made of problems facing blacks and too much is being spent, can we conclude, ergo, that they think blacks are getting too many handouts? If so, they would not be alone. And they would also be mistaken. In the 1970s their predecessors’ prevailing wisdom was that welfare moms drove Cadillacs and luxuriated in government largesse while others (substitute hard-working white folks) were kept from the cookie jar.
So let’s set the record straight—for then and now.
One way to see whether blacks are getting too much attention is to look at how funds from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the stimulus package) were distributed among racial groups. Arloc Sherman, a researcher at the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who checked about 25 percent of the stimulus outlays that went directly to households, found that for every dollar of government benefits—such as for child tax credits, extended unemployment payments and a hike in food stamps—about 64 cents went to non-Hispanic whites, 16 cents to Hispanics, 6 cents to others and 15 cents to non-Hispanic blacks. The percentages roughly correspond to the different groups’ numbers in the population—hardly a windfall for blacks.
The Tea Partyers probably just don’t like the poor, period—or that the government provides them with benefits. Although 15 million Americans are out of work and haven’t found jobs for months, 73 percent of Tea Partyers think benefits encourage the poor to remain poor. But if they cared to look, they’d see that the wealthy get far more benefits than do those with low incomes. In 1978, when economist Joseph Pechman at the Brookings Institution scoured the federal budget, he found that all programs for the poor totaled $47 billion, while those for middle- and upper-income groups—mostly in the form of tax write-offs—ballooned to $158 billion, more than three times more.
Fast-forward to the present, and it’s the same-old same-old. Bob McIntyre, an economist and director of the Washington-based Citizens for Tax Justice, found that in 2007, the bottom 60 percent of American households (with incomes of less than $50,000) benefited from government programs to the tune of $445 billion—no small sum by any arithmetic. Because recipients aren’t broken down by race, we can assume blacks get only part of that amount. But at the same time a much smaller group—the top 20 percent, with incomes over $85,000—got a striking $539 billion in tax breaks. Almost $100 billion more! And the top 1 percent of American households—with incomes above $450,000—got $298 billion, or tax savings of $210,000 each.
For the low-income groups, McIntyre tallied programs such as Medicaid (by far the largest); food stamps; Supplemental Security Income (or SSI, for the disabled); housing and home energy assistance; payments to states and local governments for family support, fostercare and daycare; and children’s health insurance. For the well-off, he added up the two biggest expenditures—property tax and mortgage interest deductions—along with exemptions for interest on state and local bonds, reduced tax rates for capital gains and dividends, tax credits and various breaks for corporations and businesses. By allowing these tax breaks, the government basically forgoes money it could collect.
McIntyre says Congress originally put tax breaks in the tax code because it wanted Americans to buy things, such as houses, so it gave them a subsidy in the form of tax savings. He also contends that tax write-offs aren’t the only way upper-income groups benefit. For example, government spending that would appear to benefit all Americans, such as for highways, bridges, the court system and airports, clearly helps some folks more than others.
"The fact that everyone uses something doesn’t mean everyone uses it equally," he explains. For example, the courts exist mainly to resolve business or property disputes, and airports are used very little by those at the bottom.
Given the increasing level of hyperbole, it seems that despite the evidence, Tea Partyers will likely persist with their fairy tales, undaunted.
This brings us to the most famous tea party of all, where the Mad Hatter’s remark seemed to Alice "to have no sort of meaning in it." For both sets of partyers, facts are irrelevant. To sort out the mayhem in Wonderland, Alice insists she has "a right to think." To this, the Duchess replies, "Just about as much right as pigs have to fly."
Dedicated to their dogma, which steers clear of details, today’s Tea Partyers may truly be the descendants of the Mad Hatter and March Hare, not of the folks who dumped all that tea into the harbor.