“The government programs have thrown money at poverty since the mid-’60s, $19 trillion. And we have 10 times more people on welfare, more people in poverty, more broken homes, more crimes.”

—Ben Carson, interview on CNN, Aug. 26, 2015

Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon who is seeking the GOP presidential nomination, asserted in a television interview that government efforts to ease poverty have largely been a failure. He specifically made two claims — that $19 trillion has been spent on anti-poverty programs since the mid-1960s and that “we have 10 times more people on welfare.” More generally, he also said that there are more people living in poverty.

We’ve often explained that statistics can be manipulated when comparing decades. For instance, the population of the United States is 60 percent larger in 2015 than it was in 1965, so it may not be relevant to compare raw numbers. There are definitional issues, such as what constitutes an “anti-poverty” or “welfare” program. Is it all means-tested programs, including health insurance such as Medicaid that also assists people above the poverty line? Or should it be limited to traditional anti-poverty programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)?

Let’s check out Carson’s math.

The Facts

Eligibility for participation in government benefit programs can be based either on financial need (means-tested) or the occurrence of an event (such as reaching retirement age). Examples of mean-tested “social welfare” programs include TANF; food stamps; Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for the disabled; Special Supplemental Nutritional Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC); public or subsidized rental housing; free or reduced-priced school meals; and Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor.

Doug Watts, a Carson campaign spokesman, said, “We’re speaking of means-tested public assistance programs.”

Under that rubric, the “federal government is spending almost $1 trillion a year on welfare programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical treatment, social services, training, and education to poor and low-income Americans,” providing benefits and cash to almost 100 million recipients, Watts said. “Dr. Carson recognizes the need and value of public assistance. Our point is the way government has addressed it, by virtually throwing money to programs, that have mostly proved ineffective or inadequate at reducing poverty.”

The poverty rate in 1965 was 17.3 percent, when the “war on poverty” announced by President Lyndon Johnson began to be implemented; Watts noted that in 2010 it was 15 percent. (It was 14.5 percent in 2013, the first drop since 2006.) Watts also provided two other figures, though without providing a source: In 1965, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) “had roughly 400,000 cases (recipients),” he said. “In 2015, TANF (the successor to AFDC) had 3.1 million recipients. That alone is 8 times.”

100 million recipients

Definitions are important for this number, which is made up primarily of people on Medicaid (64.9 million people in 2014) and food stamps (46.5 million in 2014). But Medicaid is increasingly aimed at the elderly (people in nursing homes) or the disabled. “Medicaid spending per participant is much higher for people who are elderly, disabled, or pregnant than it is for nondisabled children or for working-age adults who are not disabled or pregnant,” the Congressional Budget Office said in a report. The Medicaid rolls have also expanded because the Affordable Care Act extended it to some people with income above the Federal Poverty Level.

The 100 million figure is a bit misleading, though, because it includes anyone who resides in a household in which at least one person (such as someone who is disabled) receives a means-tested payment. As of the fourth quarter of 2012, the Census Bureau says, the number stood at 109 million, but the Medicaid figure is listed as nearly 82 million, far higher than the number of people who actually receive Medicaid. Indeed, other census data indicates that 82 percent of the households that receive means-tested benefits included at least one person who was working.

In a May report, the Census Bureau said 52.2 million people — 21.3 percent of the population— participated in one or more major means-tested assistance programs, on average, each month. That seems a much more reasonable figure to use — and it’s about half the size of number touted by the Carson campaign.

The poverty rate

In saying that the poverty rate has barely changed, the Carson campaign is referring to the official poverty rate. It is worth noting that even by the official metric, the rate has declined slightly since 1965. But increasingly scholars believe the official figure is not especially informative because noncash benefits such as Medicaid, food stamps or public housing are not recorded as income, meaning it does not capture the effect of anti-poverty programs that Carson suggests are ineffective.

The Census Bureau has tried to mitigate these concerns with a Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) introduced in 2011. In fact, the 2014 report by the White House Council of Economic Advisers reassessed poverty rates over time using the SPM.

“Poverty rates fell from 25.8 percent in 1967 to 16 percent in 2012 — a decline of nearly 40 percent,” the report concluded. “In 2012 alone, the combined effect of all federal tax, cash and in-kind aid programs was to lift approximately 14.5 percent of the population — over 45 million people — out of poverty.”

$19 trillion in spending

Carson’s $19 trillion figure is within the range of estimates by right-leaning organizations that have placed spending for anti-poverty programs at $15 trillion to $20 trillion in the past 50 years. These figures, which are in inflation-adjusted dollars, include spending on about 80 means-tested programs by the federal government, plus state and local governments. The estimates include items such as nearly $100 billion for education programs, with about half devoted to Pell Grants for college, as well as the refundable portion of the Earned Income Tax Credit — which one can receive receive if you hold a job. So some might find it debatable that all of these programs constitute “welfare.”

Medicaid, again, is a huge part of the number — but the growth in the Medicaid budget is reflective of increases in health-care costs in general. The Congressional Research Service, in a 2012 report, says that between 1962 and 2011, “federal outlays for low-income health programs have increased, in inflation-adjusted terms, at a rate of 13.3 percent per year versus 6.5 percent for other spending.”

And while $19 trillion sounds like a lot of money, that’s over half a century. In context, federal spending in constant dollars amounts to nearly $110 trillion in that period.

AFDC vs. TANF recipients

Finally, we were most curious about Carson’s claim that we have “10 times people more people on welfare.” This statistic again turns on what one considers “welfare” — and the number of means-tested programs has grown over time.

The core welfare program remains what is now called TANF. That was created in the welfare overhaul signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, replacing what was known as AFDC — which dated to the New Deal legislation in the mid-1930s. AFDC was intended to provided financial aid to children whose families had low or no income, but concerns grew that some recipients had become too dependent on it, so the new law placed time limits on benefits.

A 2010 report for the House Ways and Means Committee shows that in 1965, there were 4.4 million recipients of AFDC (slightly over 1 million families). The report shows that the numbers, which had spiked as high as 14 million recipients in 1993, dramatically declined after Clinton signed the law.

As of March 2015, the number of TANF recipients is just over 3 million, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

In other words, the number of recipients in this core program has declined about 30 percent, even as the U.S. population has increased by 60 percent.

Watts did not respond to queries about why his numbers were so different. In an earlier e-mail, he said: “If you choose to eliminate those 79 [means-tested] programs from consideration, that would be intellectually dishonest. Welfare has grown exponentially, and vast amounts of money has cured nothing.”

Ten times more people

The best we can tell, besides the 4 million or so people receiving AFDC in the mid-1960s, there were 4 million Medicaid recipients in 1966 and 500,000 food stamp recipients in 1965. That adds up to nearly 9 million, but, of course, some people may have benefited from more than one program.

The other problem is that many of the programs were just getting started in the mid-1960s, so it does not really reflect a true base. A 2013 Congressional Budget Office report traced the growth of means-tested programs from 1972. The CBO’s numbers show that Medicaid participation increased from 16.5 million in 1972 to 53.2 million in 2011 and food stamps grew from 11 million people in 1972 to 44.7 million in 2011. Meanwhile, housing assistance participation grew from 2.1 million people to 3.7 million, while SSI benefits (established in 1972) went from 3.9 million in 1975 to 7.8 million in 2011.

These numbers indicate at most a four times increase in participation in means-tested programs since they became fully established. But the U.S. population has grown about 50 percent since 1972, so that has to be taken into account.

The Pinocchio Test

Carson’s claim that the number of people on “welfare” has grown tenfold is not supported by the numbers. There has certainly been an increase, at a rate that exceeds population growth. But it appears to be closer to three or four times rather than 10 times.

Carson’s claim that the United States has “thrown money” at the problem and yet more people are in poverty is also problematic. The official poverty rate does not account for the effect of many of the programs that Carson counts as welfare. When the impact of those programs is included, the number of people under the poverty line drops dramatically.

We wavered between Two and Three Pinocchios, but given the vagueness of some of the data, we tipped toward Two Pinocchios.

Two Pinocchios

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