Does the existence of Social Security and Medicare prove that the rich and powerful don’t exercise an exaggerated influence on federal policymaking? If we spend more today than we did 50 years ago aiding impoverished families, does that mean the richest 1 percent are politically marginalized? That’s essentially the argument made by Robert J. Samuelson in the pages of The Washington Post earlier this week.
Samuelson sets up a straw man—the idea that the federal government spends little or no money on poor people or on the middle class—and effectively tears it down. In fact, says Samuelson, at least 60 percent of federal spending goes to help the poor and the middle class. And furthermore, the amount of money we spend on poor people has increased significantly since 1962. Samuelson suggests that these facts prove that federal policy isn’t in the pockets of the rich and powerful.
But Samuelson’s argument rests on a shaky foundation of misleading numbers, as well as a dedicated refusal to acknowledge an entire category of federal spending that mainly benefits the rich. And while it’s true that the federal government has, in the past, put policies in place that aid the poor and protect the middle class, it’s also true the impact of those policies has eroded over time. What’s more, those very same programs are now under attack from Samuelson’s political compatriots. Finally, and most egregiously, by focusing only on federal spending, Samuelson utterly misses the myriad of other ways the rich and powerful can and do make the federal government work for them.
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