I read an article on Forbes recently that captured something I had been trying to discuss (albeit poorly) with my wife a few weeks ago. Our discussion about the ‘government assistance’ much of middle and upper class America receives without thinking of it as such was started by a tweet from a local conservative talk show host that read: “”Refugees” are getting these benefits while homeless veterans are sleeping in the streets!” and linked to an article under the title: “”Refugees” Will Cost U. S. Taxpayers $4.2 Billion” here. The linked article stated in opening: “American taxpayers will spend more than $4.1 billion in the 2017 budget to support the 519,018 refugees who have been resettled by the federal government in the United States since October 2009, according to a cost estimate by Breitbart News.”
The article is a Breitbart / CIS hit piece on refuges in general which evolved into how especially awful middle eastern refugees are in that they, in their plight, dare be amongst the neediest of refugees the US brings in, costing in their first couple of years in the US as much as $13k/yr a person in government assistance according to the article — an unacceptable drain on our economy and money that should instead be spent on our own citizens. The anti-refugee message of the article was repulsive. Even more lasting with me (a non trivial accomplishment in this case) was the radio host’s comparing illegitimate refugees’ (“refugees”) receipt of government assistance with homeless vets sleeping in the streets. Intentional or not, the message of the tweet read (and still reads) like this to me: ‘Mooching foreigners lying about being needy are sucking up so much government money that we can’t afford to provide shelter for our homeless vets.’ The xenophobic baiting was sickening, which was made that much worse by a comfortable but deplorably false economic innuendo. It is the comfortable falsehood that I want to talk about here.
Jenn and I discussed how small of an amount $4.2 billion is in the US budget. In 2016 the US revenue was $3.0 trillion dollars (including a bit over $1.5 trillion in income tax revenue), expenditures were $3.5 trillion (data).
For a comparison of scale relating refugees and the US to a small town, imagine the following scenario: essentially broke due to circumstances beyond your control you are driving to a new city in search of work and a new home. Driving your van, you have with you all your belongings. You have no insurance and your savings has been consumed to a pittance. This trip is your last hope. While traveling, a drunk driver broadsides your van. You escape minimally injured, but the van and all your belongings are lost in the ensuing blaze. A teacher from a nearby small town drives by, and you wave her down. After explaining your situation she chooses to take you into her house while you get back on your feet, understanding that you have no way to pay her back at present. The small town of 500 people the teacher lives in, having a yearly income of $5 million, thanks the teacher for her kindness and offers you $583.33 per month to aid in your care as you get back on your feet.
Looking back to the US as a whole, here are a some of the government’s expenditures last year for reference:
$1.3 trillion for Social Security Unemployment, and Labor
$1.0 trillion for Medicare & health
$541 billion for National Defense
$159 billion for The Veterans Administration
$71 billion for Department of Education
$70 billion for SNAP
$17 billion NASA
$13.6 billion School Lunch Program
$6 billion Corp of Engineers Civil Works
$6 billion WIC
$4.2 billion School Breakfast Program
(Source and additional data)
So, at a glance, the $4.2 billion spent on refugee benefits, is comparable, to a small government assistance program like the School Breakfast Program, and only 2.6% of the total VA budget (which is already acting to help homeless vets). But government assistance… why should we waste our tax money on helping people not from our country? If people can’t support themselves they should either get a job and work hard, or not come here until they can support themselves, or at least that is the gist I get from conservative media. While the average Trump and Hillary supporter would disagree about government assistance programs, most would agree that they themselves don’t get much, if any, government assistance – they work hard, pay taxes, and support themselves without any help from the government? Is that completely true though?
I list below some of the larger tax expenditures for last year. These are revenue the government would have collected based on the basic tax code if not for tax breaks for individuals:
$143.8 billion from Employer Paid Health Insurance
$134.6 billion from Lower Tax Rates of Cap. Gains and Long Term Interest
$77.0 billion from Mortgage Interest Deductions
$73.3 billion from the Earned Interest Tax Credit
$65.1 billion from Deductibility of State and Local Sales, Income, and Property Taxes
$56.0 billion from the Child Tax Credit
(Source and additional data)
Note that the amount of money the government pays in assistance each year through the SNAP program is comparable to the amount of money it ‘gives’ to homeowners by reducing their tax burden commensurate with how much mortgage interest they have paid. Also note that for the approximately 100 or so million Americans receiving the a child tax credit, if they received about $60 less of a credit for each of their children, the government would collect the additional revenue necessary to cover the cost of the assistance to refugee families, ~$4 billion.
So, for myself, I am not taxed on the portion of my pay that covers the roughly 30% of my health insurance cost that is not paid by my employer (while my employer deducts the 70% they pay from their taxes), knocking ~$2,500 off my taxable income. Additionally, we receive a $6000 child tax credit. As a renter, I have no mortgage interest to deduct, but if we owned the house we’re renting we could deduct roughly another $5,500 in mortgage interest payments. Adding everything up, I end up receiving roughly the same amount of ‘government assistance’ as a fairly expensive refugee, only it’s not ‘government assistance’, it’s just tax breaks based on circumstances; me just getting to keep more of the hard earned money I made. With the payment of mortgage insurance, a whole world of itemized deductions become available over the standard deduction. As such, as a homeowner I would be receiving even more in the way of tax credits, or if you will ‘government assistance” with every deduction. I have a safety net that the government is assisting me with through tax breaks, one that gets wider and stronger the more I make. The person receiving government assistance has a safety net being provided through a government expenditure. The government tax break assisted safety net is what the author of the article I referenced at the beginning of this post referred to as ‘white socialism’: the government assistance built into the tax code that is only able to be accessed and well utilized by those with well paying full time jobs. “By funding government programs with tax credits and deductions rather than spending, we have created an enormous social safety net that grows ever more generous as household incomes rise. It is important to note, though, that you need not be wealthy to participate. All you need to gain access to socialism for white people is a good corporate or government job. That fact helps explain how this welfare system took shape sixty years ago, why it was originally (and still overwhelmingly) white, and why white Rust Belt voters showed far more enthusiasm for Donald Trump than for Bernie Sanders. White voters are not interested in democratic socialism. They want to restore their access to a more generous and dignified program of white socialism.”
This is why, beyond the repulsive racism, xenophobia, and utter lack of compassion, the anti refugee tweet “”Refugees” are getting these benefits while homeless veterans are sleeping in the streets!” still bothered me: this well paid, radio host is receiving more in government assistance through his tax benefits alone than most, if not all, of the refugees he is decrying are receiving from the government through assistance programs. The blind hypocrisy is painful, and the weakest are hurt the most by the comfortable lie that only the lazy poor receive government assistance.