In his Nov. 28 op-ed column, “Our giant welfare state,” Robert J. Samuelson conflated tax breaks and social service spending in his discussion of the U.S. welfare state. Upon considering indirect benefits such as generous tax breaks related to employer-sponsored insurance and certain types of retirement savings accounts, Mr. Samuelson concluded that the U.S. welfare state is much larger than generally acknowledged.

Research has demonstrated that much of the benefit of U.S. tax breaks and other indirect payments accrue largely to people in the middle and upper parts of the socioeconomic spectrum. In 2008, for example, 70 percent of the largest housing-related tax break paid out by the treasury went to households with annual incomes in excess of $100,000. Such tax breaks fail to target the nation’s most vulnerable. They should not be confused with elements of a real welfare state in international comparisons.

Mr. Samuelson was right to suggest that we need a new level of candor in our national discourse about government spending and its benefits. Let’s be clear about not only how much we spend but also about who benefits.

Lauren A. Taylor, Boston

Elizabeth H. Bradley, New Haven

Robert Samuelson asserted that when we combine direct government spending on social welfare programs with the subsidies we pay private entities to provide such services, the United States becomes the second-largest welfare state in the world. He failed to point out that we would probably zoom to No. 1 if we included corporate welfare.

The United States spends hundreds of billions of dollars each year on contracts, much of it in the Defense and Homeland Security departments. A good chunk of this money is used for overhead (translation: to pad the pockets of executives) and profits (translation: large dividend payouts to shareholders). The attitude seems to be that welfare for the already-wealthy is fine.

The more we outsource public functions to the private sector, the bigger the welfare state we will have. But instead of helping those in need we will be helping those who aren’t. This is the kind of social welfare state a conservative can learn to love.

Thomas Poling, Frederick