Think Tanks? Or Propaganda Mills?

For the past couple of years, I’ve had occasional exchanges of emails with a former government official who has gone by the name of Peter the Citizen, in order to protect his identity.I don’t know why he considered that necessary, but since his most recent transmittal–with his name– is available on the internet, I assume I can link to it.

It is worth noting that Peter is a self-described conservative who has worked on welfare issues for the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and the White House under both President Reagan and President George H.W. Bush. He’s not a bleeding heart liberal; he is a policy person who takes evidence and honesty seriously.

Peter has shared his frustration with the ideologues who twist evidence in order to justify the punitive policies they favor. Most recently, he has shared inaccurate claims made by think tanks and Kevin McCarthy in support of imposing additional work requirements on the needy American beneficiaries of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicaid. He especially zeros in on misinformation currently being produced by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

In seventeen pages of text (followed by two pages of footnotes), Peter responds to what  AEI researchers present as summaries of the existing research on work requirements. One example:

AEI: “Higher labor-force participation translates to less poverty, and employment correlates to many other nonfinancial benefits, such as better physical and mental health. Encouraging work among benefit recipients gives them an opportunity to escape poverty and achieve upward mobility without depending on government assistance.”

Peter: To support the claim that “more work leads to less poverty,” Weidinger and Rachidi cite a recent study by Child Trends. This is hardly a surprising conclusion. The real question is, do work requirements lead to more work? Notably, Weidinger and Rachidi leave out the following statement from that same report:

We did see an increase in single mothers’ labor force participation in the 1990s. Yet, evidence from early-1990s welfare-to-work experiments and more recent research consistently indicate that, while work requirements can boost short-term employment and earnings, they do not have their intended effect of getting people into stable jobs that sustainably lift them out of poverty with their incomes. For example, previous research found that welfare reform accounted for only a small amount of the increase in single mothers’ employment rates in the mid-1990s….

In short, Weidinger and Rachidi celebrate a relatively small increase in employment (relative to the caseload decline), but ignore the fact that far more families are made worse off with detrimental consequences for children.

I chose the above example because it is one of the least technical (the paper’s language is nothing if not densely academic.)  Suffice it to say that all seventeen pages follow the same trajectory: the argument put forward by the AEI researchers is followed by analysis and data showing that AEI has cited to studies which have been refuted, or has omitted language limiting the applicability of  the portion they quote. In a couple of cases, AEI presents “facts” that aren’t: for example, the paper claims that the “pro-work TANF provisions in this proposal” are the same as those in the 2018 House Ways and Means legislation– the JOBS for Success Act.” Peter offers evidence showing that this assertion is factually inaccurate.

I am sharing this “in the weeds” effort by a Rightwing think-tank to justify reintroducing a policy that has proven to have substantial negative unintended consequences because –thanks to Kevin McCarthy and the mis-named “Freedom Caucus”– these proposals are part of the GOP’s debt ceiling legislation. Proponents argue that work requirements will grow the economy by helping more low-income adults enter the workforce and obtain higher earnings–addressing current labor shortages along the way.

There are two major problems with that argument for “reviving these proposals.”

One is that–as Peter points out– policymakers are not knowledgeable about work requirements or the evidence about their effectiveness. “Instead, they are swayed by the misinformation provided by conservative think tanks and other politicians who simply repeat uninformed talking points.”

The other, of course, is both more obvious and more infuriating: the debt ceiling fight is not an appropriate venue for any policy argument. Raising the debt ceiling allows the government to pay bills it has already incurred. Using a refusal to raise it as a weapon is despicable and deeply disturbing–a threat by blackmailers to upend the global economy if they don’t get their way.

One thing does come through loud and clear from reading that 17-page analysis; if sane Americans ever get control of our government, we really do need to strengthen and simplify our complicated and unwieldy social safety net.


  1. Without raising minimum wage, it seems unfair to have a discussion to solve a debt crisis on the backs of low income single working mothers before clawing back tax cuts on the wealthy.

  2. Cheers to Norris!

    What happened to MAGA’s billions coming from the Pentagon’s substantial budget? Why did they back down and go after the social safety net? Cowards!!

    Single mothers rarely use TANF because they have to turn over their rights to child support to the State. Once again, they are using the Koch dark network to substantiate attacking single mothers instead of wealthy oligarchs.

    How brave they all are!

    This cowardice comes with Bernie Sanders yelling about taxing the rich so that Biden can find “the middle ground” with MAGA.

    It’s all performative…the oligarchs will get their way.

  3. The New York Times is setting the stage for this debate (literally). In their morning newsletter, they write, “Republicans say they will lift the debt ceiling only if Biden agrees to a large cut in federal spending that would undo some of his climate policies and make it easier for wealthy people to avoid paying taxes.”

    These so-called concessions will be “negotiated” since they are a win for the oligarchs who fund the think tanks that produce the propaganda for politicians. The media plays along, too, because the oligarchs control the newspapers. It’s a spin factory…

  4. There is serious debate within the Biden Administration about a constitutional challenge to the debt limit.

    From the NYTimes: That option is effectively a constitutional challenge to the debt limit. Under the theory, the government would be required by the 14th Amendment to continue issuing new debt to pay bondholders, Social Security recipients, government employees and others, even if Congress fails to lift the limit before the so-called X-date. That theory rests on the 14th Amendment clause stating that “the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.”

    The Administration should simply state its intention to invoke 14th Amendment protections to raise the debt limit. The current debt is authorized by legislation and is never challenged unless and until it is needed as a blunt weapon against Democratic policies. Let the Republicans challenge it in court where this game of political blackmail will either stand or fall. We’ll then see if the Court has the will to bring down the economy and the nation with it.

  5. Lest we waller in the swamps of Sleepy Hollow, ain’t it great to be woke?!!

  6. One point I may have missed, but if I recall correctly, a majority of the recipients of our meager largesse already work. It’s like using a teaspoon to to bail out a sinking ship. Many have more than one job, but no full time job and no benefits. At the current minimum wage, they might be able to afford a bathroom, but no bedroom, kitchen, or living space in any apartment in any city I’ve ever lived in.

  7. John Street and Lester; John’s references to the 14th Amendment refers to the solution to raising the debt limit but we are currently stuck in Lester’s swamp, up to our ass in alligators who do not understand “woke” and do not intend to uphold their Oaths of Office to protect the Constitution and its Amendments.

    “…if sane Americans ever get control of our government, we really do need to strengthen and simplify our complicated and unwieldy social safety net.”

  8. In 2005, I was an emergency department nurse in Martinsville. I wrote a guest column in the Herald Times about a patient who was a lone example out of many that I saw who encompassed in a nutshell the inhumane nature of our system.
    He was a short order cook with multiple health problems and a gangrenous big toe brought him to us.
    In addition, he had diabetes and had run out of his supplies, had high blood pressure and as it turned out, congestive heart failure.
    He contended he could not stay in the hospital because “ I have to work.” He was middle aged with no family. The doctor dragged me into the room ( this person was not my patient although I then began to advocate for him ) to tell this fellow , to reiterate what the doctor said to him, what would surely happen to him if he did not allow us to care for him.
    His reply when I finished was “ I guess I’ll die in that case.”
    Is this what the Republicans want? It seems so.

  9. These propaganda enclaves misstate or ignore ther own research findings in order to reach their preordained results, and the final insult to fair play is that they are 501(c)(3) endowed, thus bringing you and me into the act via our paying taxes to (however indirectly) pay for our own brainwashing. GRRRR!

    What’s next? Shall we end the tortured “carried interest” provision of the code that helps further enrich hedge and equity funds and do away with the capital gains as well in these clearly ordinary income transactions, thus even further enriching this narrow band of taxpayers? GRRRR #2!

    Lastly, with preachers from their pulpits telling their flocks to vote for Trump and propaganda mills beating up on programs for the poor it is past time to rigidly enforce the laws pertaining to tax-free status of such protected entities.

  10. Gerald, I agree with you on the churches encouraging people to vote for Trump. They shouldn’t have tax free status if they’re going to do that. I’d point out though there are churches on both sides of the political divide doing that and have been for years.

  11. Capitalism is a summary of forces that lead to its single relentless reliable result which is wealth redistribution up. The ideas that fail to fail it.

    Like many things, the good/evil of it can be indicated by the degree it’s production of wealth redistribution up, which capitalism is always seeking the evil extreme of.

    It’s equally evil twin is socialism which is evil in the opposite direction of homogeneity. Everything the same among everyone.

    The challenge therefore is to find and maintain the mixed economy with the necessary balance between the two opposing collections of forces. Is the effective balance of socialism and capitalism in an effective mixed economy centralism? IDK “Balanceism”? Effectivism? The name doesn’t matter.

    The business of capitalistic entertainment media has and is robbing the country of the ability to politically search for such balance in our economy nowadays.

  12. Paul: Agreed. Preachers from their pulpits telling their flock to vote for any politician is a breach of their status as a 501er, but where is the enforcement of such rule? Laws, rules and regulations are worthless unless enforced.

  13. Pete, I think you’re mixing up socialism with communism. Read Einstein’s, Why Socialism dissertation in the Monthly Review. While it was written in 1949, it is still relevant today.

  14. Right wing think tanks are funded by corporations and wealthy business owners that have made their millions or billions via slave labor. Recall how the republican state legislatures ended unemployment early during the pandemic because business owners wanted their low wage employees back to work. To hell with the workers’ safety. So what if they have to work in tight spaces that increase their exposure to Covid. That shouldn’t be the employers’ problem. Does everyone remember when the IN legislature bowed to their donors’ demands to end unemployment and force low wage employees back to work? The funny thing was that many of those employees chose not to return to those jobs and those employers have taken a hit to their profit margins.

    In my opinion, one of the best things to happen as a result of the pandemic is the shutdown of businesses which triggered automatic unemployment insurance, along with the addition of $600/week extra from the federal government. That money and time off work enabled many low wage employees the ability to gain training/education for better jobs so they would never have to return to slavery. It also allowed many young mothers realize that it was costing them more money to work than they brought home after taxes and they would be better off staying home with their children instead of paying for childcare, clothing, transportation, etc.. Of course, that only worked for those with a spouse that earned a living wage. Many other low wage employees found ways to work from home and earn more money than they did at their former jobs.

    We all miss buying products or services that we used to easily obtain at very low prices. There are still corporations and wealthy business owners demanding congress and state legislatures force people to return to those low wage jobs, but I don’t believe enough people will accept those low wage jobs to enable employers to return to their pre-pandemic level of business.

    Restaurants seem to have been hit the hardest with a lack of employees returning to work. In my opinion, businesses that exist because they rely on paying employees less than a living wage do not have the right to be in business. Why should taxpayers be forced to subsidize their bottom line via rental assistance, food stamps, health insurance, etc. for their low wage employees? Our federal government must create a fair minimum living wage that applies to all businesses. That minimum wage must also receive a annual COLA just like SS does. If a business claims they cannot afford to pay the bare minimum wage, then they should not exist. It’s as simple as that.

  15. Todd and Pete are both correct except for Pete’s characterization of socialism as evil. Neither capitalism nor socialism are evil, although both Communism and Fascism, which are two sides of the same coin, are. So finding a balance between capitalism and socialism is the solution that moves us toward a stable society both economically and politically.

  16. Does anyone else remember when the IN gop legislature wanted to force people receiving food stamps and Healthy Indiana Plan health insurance to look for work? Studies were conducted that proved managing the plan and monitoring it to ensure recipients were actually looking for work was going to cost the state a lot more money than they might save? I think they went ahead and passed legislation, but a lawsuit was filed and a judge decided it the legislation was illegal. I can’t recall the details, but that is why the work search requirement never happened.

    That work search requirement was demanded by republican led businesses that didn’t want to pay employees a living wage and were therefore having trouble finding enough employees. Now gop businesses are demanding the same thing from the federal government.

    Their problem could be quickly solved by paying better wages, but why give up even a penny of their profits if they can get the taxpayers to subsidize their businesses? That would be considered completely un-American.

  17. Sharon, I agree. A mixed economy is what works best and our healthcare system is one of predatory capitalism whose root is racism.
    As for restaurants, as someone who worked in that business as a server for 20 years before becoming a nurse, it is an extremely difficult business to keep afloat. I’m certain that two factors, involvement of liquor sales and paying servers $2.13 an hour help many restaurants survive.

  18. Right-wing think tanks + Republican morons in Congress + Kevin McCarthy = Arbeit macht Frei!

  19. With all the guns going round, one might just show up at the state offices and demand, by gun point, a job or else, no food for you. This work requirement is discriminatory against disabled people that are waiting months for disabled “status.” Single mothers will be harmed the most by this because you can’t get affordable childcare anywhere.

    But, I can hear those people saying things like “Why should I pay taxes so the lazy can eat? Get a job!”

    I have lost faith in humanity lately.
    The cruelty is the point.

  20. Yes, Joan, this is exactly what the Republicans want!
    Did the prospect of numerous deaths stop my governor from denying the extent, even reality, of
    Covid, for the sake of not being “woke?” DeathSantis could not have cared less!
    These Koch funded organizations were never meant to be homes for truth, only agenda driven drivel.

  21. To add to my story, at that time the e.r. had our own dedicated social worker who had also been an icu nurse working in our department. She was helpful in this case but when she moved on, IU Health had taken over and did not replace her. Sad.

  22. Regarding the debt ceiling, it was reported yesterday that house minority leader Jeffries informed that Democrats filed for a “discharge petition” earlier this year in anticipation of the Republicans reckless strategy. It’s a house provision that would allow any of the 218 members to bring a bill to the floor over the objections of the House Speaker. This means that it would only take five republicans with all the democrats to pass the bill. They can start collecting signatures starting May 16th. As Maddow would say “watch this space”!

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