This Week in Poverty: Gangnam-Style Counting With Senator Jeff Sessions

March 01, 2013 | The Nation |  Link to article

An excellent new report from Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama proves that we spend more than $60,000 on every poor household in the United States every year, thereby raising the typical poor household’s standard of living above that of the typical middle-income household.

That’s right, I said “excellent” and “proves.” Why? Well, just take a look at this analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP)—an economic think tank that a bunch of muckety-mucks in Washington, DC, think is so “renowned” at knowing numbers.

According to this CBPP outfit, the senator arrives at the $68,000 figure by simply “adding up the cost of a large number of programs that are targeted on low- and moderate-income households—or on schools and communities with large numbers of low- and moderate-income students or residents—and dividing the total cost of these programs by the number of households below the official poverty line…. It treats all the benefits that go to households with annual incomes above the poverty line as though they were expenditures made on behalf of households with incomes below the poverty line.”

So what’s the problem? If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a DC native, it’s this: My town has got to leave more room for creativity and imagination, because sticking to so-called “facts” and “logic” is both “limiting” and “boring.”

In his report, Senator Sessions has counted things like payments to hospitals, doctors and nursing homes—including for elderly end-of-life care and people with serious disabilities who are institutionalized—“as though these payments are akin to cash income that is going to poor families to live on,” says the CBPP. In fact, close to half of all the spending that Sessions counts as income to poor households “consists of payments to hospitals, doctors and other providers”; and the majority of that spending is for “the elderly or people with disabilities.” The people living in nursing homes and other long-care facilities aren’t actually counted by the US Census Bureau as members of poor households—and many of them were middle-income until their health expenses exhausted their savings—but for the purposes of the Sessions report, these expenditures are counted as tens of billions of dollars going to households below the poverty line.

It’s a burst of creativity that is downright inspiring—I like to close my eyes and imagine Sessions and his staff achieving it while blasting “The Ride of the Valkyries.”

You can also see Dumbledore-like wizardry with the senator’s assessment of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). In 2011, 65 percent of the households receiving the EITC were above the poverty line. But Sessions “takes all means-tested assistance that goes to households above the poverty line and includes it in the spending total that it divides by the number of people below the poverty line,” according to the CBPP.

Sessions uses his Gangnam Style counting to draw the stop-the-presses, pitchfork-provoking conclusion that the benefits received by households below the poverty line—whether those households actually receive those benefits or not—raises their standard of living above that of the typical middle-income household.

The Old Guard CBPP—with all its dogmatic-about-data ways—insists that US Census Bureau data refutes the senator’s conclusion: “In 2011, the typical person in a family whose income was below the poverty line before means-tested benefits are counted remained 12 percent below the poverty line after the means-tested benefits are counted…[and] even with these benefits, the typical poor person’s standard of living is 57 percent below that of the typical middle-income American.”

Sure, if you want to be all autocratic and technocratic about it. But in the new DC—led by bon vivants like Sessions—limits and artificial walls fall by the wayside, new horizons are revealed, and—poof!—there actually is no poverty anymore.

I just wish Sessions had gone further: For example, what is the share of welfare payments to the poor in the form of monies received by defense contractors to build weapons systems designed to protect Americans—including poor Americans? If you think about it creatively, poor Americans are our least mobile and therefore most vulnerable citizens, so they actually consume a disproportionate amount of the defense budget. Same goes for Homeland Security, medical research, food inspection, wind energy, space exploration—because who wants to find another planet we could potentially inhabit more than poor people do?

Now, I do have one minor beef with the Sessions report and it’s this: I’m fairly certain that the only way they could pierce the steel-like matrix of so-called facts in order to discover this real reality that the rest of us have been missing is by being high. Sure, in this case, the getting-high cloud has a silver lining. But in my playbook, it’s a no-no even for purposes of groundbreaking creativity of Sessions-like proportions.

Let me be clear, I’m not judging the senator or his staff. They are victims of what I call the decay of the institution of integrity that began long before they arrived in Congress. What is needed at this moment in our history is a Temporary Assistance to Integrity-challenged Legislators (TAIL) program—modeled after the hugely-successful-until-Obama-meddled-with-it Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program.

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There will obviously need to be testing for Senator Sessions, his staff and other participants in the program in order to ensure that they are clean—otherwise, we can’t have our tax dollars going to support their salaries. And, of course, the senator and his staff will receive their salaries on debit cards—and they won’t be able to make withdrawals anywhere that sells liquor, or use the cards in restaurants that sell sugary drinks. But these are all no-brainers.

The real long-term challenge is how to repair the institution of integrity.

To do that, these people need to learn the value of integrity, which can’t be accomplished through their daily legislative work—that culture has the propensity to reinforce undesirable behaviors. Instead, they will need to perform thirty hours per week of Integrity Training. Allowable activities will include: reading and re-reading All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten, taking an integrity training course offered by an accredited for-profit entity and reading the Sessions report aloud at community meetings in impoverished neighborhoods.

Sessions and his staff needn’t worry—the program will be as easy as one, two, three, or the equivalent mix-and-match of numbers that they use for counting Gangnam-Style.

Note: a previous version of this post incorrectly reported that Sen. Sessions asserts that we spend the equivalent of $68,000 per poor household annually.  It should have read that the Senator says we spend more than $60,000 per poor household annually--a figure, by the way, that is still completely absurd.

A Demos/The Nation Production

Thank you, Demos, for collaborating with The Nation and using my post on TANF to create another one of your stellar infographics. Please share this—people just don’t know enough about this program. (And for some deep reading on TANF, check out this Congressional testimony yesterday by CLASP’s Elizabeth Lower-Basch.)

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