NY Times article shows that wealthy get more in tax breaks than poor do in benefits

Bravo to Eduardo Porter for his article titles “A Nation of Too Many Tax Breaks” on the front page of today’s New York Times’ business section.

Porter demonstrates that while the poor do get more in government benefits, the rich more than make up for it in the tax breaks that enable them to reduce the taxes they pay.

At the heart of the article are two sets of bar and circle graphs. One set depicts the average that each family in various quintiles (fifths of the country) get in government benefits such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, housing assistance and food stamps. The other set depicts the amount families in each quintile save on average on what they pay in taxes because of tax breaks.

Just looking at the bar graph is enough to see that when you add up tax breaks and benefits, the wealthy make out like bandits.  We can also see that we give more tax breaks than benefits, so if we ended tax breaks, we could fund the benefits and make a dent in the deficit.

But because Porter never bothers to actually add the totals, we never see the hidden story: the middle class are getting screwed, not by the poor as Santorum, Gingrich and their ilk imply, but by the wealthy.

Here’s the math:

Income by Quintile

Average Benefits

Average Tax Break

Bottom Fifth



2nd Lowest



Middle Fifth



2nd Highest



Highest Fifth





By not adding the totals, Porter misses the fact that the middle class get so little from the deal.  The middle class—those in middle fifth and second highest quintiles–get about 24% less in benefits and tax breaks than the poor do.  But the wealthiest fifth get more than twice as much as the middle class do in benefits and tax breaks, and 80% more than the poor and near poor.

When we look at these numbers, I don’t see how anyone could be angry at the poor. No religion or culture that I have ever encountered ever showed anything but charity for the least fortunate among us, which makes me wonder why anyone lucky enough to be part of the middle two-fifths of the country would begrudge the poor $4,000 a year from the collective resources of the government, especially since the fund is always earmarked for specific needs, such as for food, health care or education, or vulnerable populations such as the elderly and the disabled.

The true target of ire should be the wealthiest fifth, who are better off than everyone else and yet get the lion’s share of the government’s largess.

I’m guessing that anyone in the middle who does the math (or reads OpEdge) will gain more sympathy for the position of the Occupy Movement that posits a class war waged by the wealthiest 1% of the population against everyone else.   Or at least they might if the Occupy Movement could make the transition that the Tea Party movement did and become a party that has positions and supports candidates.

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