New York Times Op-Ed Highlights Absurdity Of Conservative Media's “Free Stuff” Talking Point When It Comes To Government Benefits

New York Times contributor Bryce Covert highlighted how Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush's claim that Democrats promise “free stuff” to court black voters - a narrative widely used by conservative media - “takes an incredibly narrow, and therefore misleading, view of government benefits,” and is at odds with his own tax plan.

In a September speech during a campaign stop in South Carolina, Jeb Bush claimed that Democrats use “free stuff” in order to sway black voters. As The Washington Post's Phillip Bump subsequently explained, Bush's assertion had a “lack of evidence” and was based on popular conservative myths. Conservative media have spent years propping up similar unsubstantiated claims that Democrats use “free stuff” to entice minority voters and jumped to defend Bush when he parroted their talking point.

ThinkProgress' Bryce Covert explained in an October 8 op-ed for the New York Times that the “free stuff” talking point ignores how “we all get 'free stuff' from the government” such as tax credits, deductions, and exclusions. Writing that Bush “is almost certainly aware of the freebies available through taxes” as his own tax plan would give out more of them, Covert pointed out the disconnect between Bush's comments and his economic proposals:

The Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush got caught sounding like a Mitt Romney rerun recently: He told a mostly white audience that he could attract black voters because his campaign “isn't one of division and get in line and we'll take care of you with free stuff.” The remark comes just three years after Mr. Romney was lampooned for later describing his own message in a speech to the N.A.A.C.P. as one where the listeners shouldn't expect “free stuff.”

In each context, it was clear what kind of government stuff they meant, given the voters they were talking about. They meant welfare programs -- cash benefits from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, food stamps, housing subsidies and other direct spending programs that help the poor -- that are, often unfairly, associated with black Americans.

But the shorthand of “free stuff” also takes an incredibly narrow, and therefore misleading, view of government benefits. There's a whole treasure trove of government handouts that aren't dispensed through spending, but rather through the tax code. That doesn't make them any less “free” than a rent voucher or an Electronic Benefit Transfer card.

The government loses about $900 billion in revenue every year on just the 10 largest tax expenditures -- called expenditures because while they aren't direct outlays, they come at a cost just like direct spending. It's a pot that includes credits like the earned-income tax credit and Child Tax Credit as well as deductions and exclusions that help mainly middle-class people reduce how much they owe each April. It also includes special tax rates such as the lower burden on money made through investments instead of a salary. Tax credits mainly help the poor, but the rest help the well off: According to the Congressional Budget Office, more than half of the benefits of these expenditures go to the richest 20 percent of American households.


These facts are obscured for most people. While those who get government benefits through spending programs are often aware -- and too frequently ashamed -- of that fact, those who get them through the tax system usually don't realize they've received a handout. In a 2008 poll, 57 percent of people said they had never availed themselves of a government program, yet 94 percent of those same people had in fact benefited from at least one -- mostly through what the Cornell professor Suzanne Mettler has called the “submerged state,” or the huge but often invisible network of money spent through the tax code.

Jeb Bush, however, is almost certainly aware of the freebies available through taxes. (According to one analysis of his federal income tax returns, he himself has saved at least $241,000 since 1981 through the mortgage interest deduction.) Just days before he vowed not to promise voters more free stuff, he put out a tax plan that would give out a whole lot more of it.

There are a couple of things in his plan that would benefit low-income Americans, like a boost to the earned-income tax credit. But thanks to proposed changes such as lowering the top income tax rate, ending the estate tax paid by the wealthiest 0.2 percent and even further reducing the rate for investment income, the biggest benefit would be handed to those who are already counted in the richest 1 percent slice of America. And it would come at a cost of at least $1.6 trillion over a decade, according to analysis by the Tax Foundation.


Every four years, politicians stigmatize “free stuff” like food stamps and welfare while courting votes -- and gloss over tax breaks. But the problem goes beyond disingenuous politicians. Statements like these erode support for government. The more “visible” benefits someone has used -- in other words, direct spending programs -- the more likely he is to feel the government has helped him personally. If most Americans falsely think they don't get free government stuff, though, they won't want to offer it to the people they think get it instead.