A few Sundays ago, Congressman-elect Glenn Grothman told Milwaukee TV host Mike Gousha that welfare recipients, "can easily get $35,000 a year in total benefits between the healthcare and the earned income credit and the FoodShare and the low-income housing and what have you."
The fact-checkers went to town on this, both national and local. And why not? Grothman threw them a softball, serving up a seemingly outrageous statement with a big, fat, juicy number attached to it. The fact-checkers love these kinds of quantitative statements, because math is a lot easier to "fact check" than, say, stupidity or malice.
And boy, did they dig in. The Washington Post awarded Grothman two Pinocchios for leaving out "context" and "caveats," mostly because his $35,000 number was derived from a very specific – and rare – scenario he asked Wisconsin's Legislative Fiscal Bureau to simulate. In other words, Grothman put his thumb on the scale to create as large a "total benefits" calculation as possible.
PolitiFact Wisconsin called Grothman's statement "mostly false," also because, as they said, "only a small percentage of Wisconsin residents would qualify for all of the various child care subsidies, housing aid, food stamps and tax benefits that Grothman cites."
By zeroing on the number he spat out – and, you know, $35,000 does seem like a lot of money – the fact-checkers miss the chance to nail Grothman for the far worse implication of his statement: that the poor are lazy, and are paid by the government to stay lazy.
Not just because he said "easily," which I assume he probably meant in the sense that the total he provides is at least $35,000 and likely more. Indeed, the LRB memo he cites to back up his statement gives a number almost 20 percent higher than that.
But rather, Grothman says in the interview that government help for the poor is, "a bribe not to work that hard."
This, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the core tenets of modern conservatism: poor people don't work hard and will never work hard because the government pays them not to. You see it today in the way Paul Ryan opposes giving poor children lunches at school, and you saw its genesis a generation ago when Ronald Reagan derided "welfare queens" driving Cadillacs and "strapping young bucks" buying T-bone steaks with their food stamps – lazy, undeserving people getting over with your money.
The Post's fact-checkers basically come right out and shrug their shoulders at this: "That is Grothman’s opinion," they write, "and not something that we can check."
I say "mostly false" to that! Grothman's own evidence, the LRB memo he submitted in his defense, proves just how wrong Grothman is and how wrong the fact-checkers are not to go full Pinocchio on him.
Grothman's welfare queen – he doesn't call her that, but come on – is "a single parent working part-time and attending technical college full-time, raising two children and earning $10,000 a year," the Post says. This is the person Grothman claims is being bribed not to work that hard.
Really? She's working part time and making $10,000 a year with no college degree. Which is lucky – the unemployment rate for people who have not gone to college is nearly twice that of those with a four-year degree. At the minimum wage, it takes 26 hours a week to earn $10,000 a year, and it puts her at about half the federal poverty level for her family of three. It's possible she's making more than minimum wage; the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics puts median full-time earnings for women with no college degree at about $14 an hour. But as a part time worker, she's unlikely to be making pay equivalent to a full-time worker – we can assume she's working at least 20 hours a week.
That may not seem like much, but she's also going to school full-time, which is itself up to a 40-hour a week commitment. That's 60 hours of work she needs to do every single week. Compare that to the work schedule of, say, state legislators or Congressmen, who give themselves large chunks of time off to raise funds and campaign rather than do the work they are elected to do.
Further, we know that part-time, low-wage workers, especially in the service industry, have a hard time keeping a consistent work schedule, which makes being a full-time student and a full-time parent that much more of a challenge. But let's just say our hypothetical single mother here is lucky enough to have that consistent schedule.
Still, she's raising two children by herself, arranging (and paying for) child care while she's at work and at school, feeding them, checking their homework and making sure they get where they need to go to be good kids – school, day care, soccer practice, piano lessons, space camp, whatever it is her children are into, many of which are not likely to be free, either – all by herself or by begging friends and family to help.
This does not sound like a lazy woman to me, or someone who is sitting back and enjoying her government bribes to stay poor and unmarried.
Indeed, there is no shortage of fact-based reporting and academic research on how difficult it is to be poor in this country, and how hard the poor themselves work. From Great Depression-era narratives to Studs Terkel's "Work" to Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed" to this excerpt of a new book in Slate a couple of weeks ago, there is plenty of evidence that America's working poor work really hard.
The evidence is so overwhelming that Grothman, by calling government assistance for people like that a "bribe not to work that hard," is blatantly just as untruthful in his "opinion" as he is in his $35,000 number. I would say, even, that this is by far the bigger, more egregious lie, as it is being used by Grothman and his ilk to justify drastic cuts to programs that help the poor stay above water, that help our single mother here make a home and a life for her kids somewhat commensurate to the amount of hard work she's putting in to get there.
Yet the fact checkers, both at the Post and at the PolitiFact Wisconsin, let it slide, and let their readers believe that Grothman is right to call hardworking Americans lazy just because they are poor.
Nothing could be further from the truth.