I have a friend who posted, on Facebook, an article saying 35 percent of all American wages is “handouts”, and I posted a counter-article calling the first one a “Zombie Lie”. The friend is one of the most intelligent and civil people I know so I expect he’ll take it OK as I argue with him publicly.
The Zombie article, on Columbia Journalism Review, hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as the 35% article in CNBC, but I still have to agree with CJR. That 35% includes Social Security, Medicare and other money which simply goes back to the people who pay into it. It also includes stimulus money, which is government spending but not a “handout”. And if Rush Limbaugh is correctly quoted in the article, saying “One-third of us don’t earn anything. One-third of us live totally on handouts”, than that’s an absolutely false and dangerous lie.
If “One Third of us” didn’t do anything, and lived “totally on handouts”, the country wouldn’t even look the same. Such a statement isn’t even realistic but it’s passed around as fact by a significant number of reporters and commenters.
The effects of the “One Third” fallacy is more support for an unrealistic budget proposal. This lie results in a significant portion of the voting population believing that you can cut $61 billion dollars from the budget and the only people who will be hurt by it are welfare bums and do-nothing government workers.
A lot of the “handouts” we’re talking about are programs such as WIC, Head Start, or housing assistance, and many recipients of these benefits do work. Some of them work part time. McDonald’s is one of many employers that hire “part time” workers to work nearly, but not quite, 40 hours a week. Many minimum wage workers have two part time jobs or try to get an education, which is difficult because businesses like the local McDonald’s change their schedule every week and only post the schedules a week in advance. So people work all day at one or more jobs, don’t get paid enough to cover rent, transportation, and medical costs, and don’t have full time benefits because they’re only working part time. The result is you get a “Hot, freshly prepared” meal for only a dollar.
Even those who are getting unemployment insurance have to prove that they were recently working and looking for new work. Unemployment isn’t an open ended government handout to the non-working. That’s why we have debates about extensions in unemployment assistance.
Of course, if we do want to talk about handouts for doing nothing, we can talk about Michele Bachmann’s farm.