News Item Archive - 1999

The Fumento Mythology

A decade after writing The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS, Michael Fumento of the Hudson Institute continues to minimize and skew the AIDS crisis.

Fumento is a virtual poster child for what right-wing institutions can foster: Prior to joining Hudson, he’s had stints at the American Enterprise Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He was legal writer at the Unification Church=owned Washington Times and science writer at Reason magazine. Prior to that, he was a staffer with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights under Reagan.

In an op-ed in the Washington Times (6/8/99), Fumento was happy to proclaim that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had found fewer new AIDS cases–for a rather perverse reason: It proves to him that he was right all along. He now claims that because there has been a 20 percent decline in new U.S. AIDS cases over the last year, “the bottom is truly falling out of the epidemic,” and since heterosexual AIDS cases continue at 14 percent of the total, there was never a threat of a wider epidemic.

Fumento was able to put a cheerful spin on the numbers by focusing only on the number of people with full-blown AIDS–ignoring that the number of people newly infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is holding steady at 40,000 per year. Unmentioned by Fumento: one major reason for the decline in new AIDS cases in the U.S. is the success of protease inhibitors, which slow the progression of the disease. Actually, his piece was somewhat ill-timed, since shortly thereafter reports surfaced that “the past few years’ decrease is slowing down at an alarming rate,” since drug treatments have “lost their effectiveness as the virus becomes resistant to new drugs.”(Time, 9/13/99)

Fumento mocks “the second biggest obsession, teen-agers”–noting that they are only 0.6 percent of new cases. Of course there are relatively few teens with AIDS, since it generally takes about 10 years for the disease to develop. (They constitute 2 percent of reported HIV infections, or about three times as great a proportion.)

Fumento notes that of the 297 U.S. teens reported with AIDS, 68 were in the heterosexual contact category. But if you bother doing the math, that’s 23 percent–higher than the 14 percent for all age groups, suggesting that down the line AIDS contracted via heterosexual contact will continue to constitute a greater portion of the total. “Though the number of AIDS deaths has in the last few years decreased abruptly due to the new drug treatments, the percentage of AIDS deaths attributable to heterosexual contact has continued to rise slowly but steadily,” notes Peter Lurie, a doctor at Public Citizen’s Health Research Group.

Fumento takes great delight in chastising “homosexual activists [who] are now admitting they literally conspired to exaggerate the threat to the general population.” No example of such an admission from “homosexuals,” as he insists on calling them, is given; while there certainly may have been instances in which lesbian and gay advocates fell into an undifferentiated “everyone is at risk” argument, the highest profile activist group, ACT UP, generally stressed that it was stigmatized groups–gay men, poor people of color and IV drug-users–who had the highest risk of both contracting and dying from HIV/AIDS in the U.S.

More troubling, “general population” seems to be Fumento’s code for well-to-do straight white people. When he notes the ethnic disparities (they’re tough to miss; the cover of the CDC report he cites features a graph showing that there are now as many blacks with AIDS as whites), he does so in such a way as to tell European-American readers that they need not worry–or care. It’s someone else’s problem, so it’s not really a problem.

This approach explains why Fumento can limit his critique almost totally to the United States. According to the head of the U.N. program on HIV and AIDS (NPR, 9/17/99), “every day, Africa buries now five and a half thousand of its sons and daughters who have died from AIDS.” The vast majority of this toll stems from heterosexual transmission, and both HIV and actual AIDS cases are increasing in Africa. These deaths–which total in the millions–do not result in any apology from Fumento for talking about “the myth of heterosexual AIDS.”


Think Tank Monitor is a joint project of FAIR and the Institute for Public Accuracy (www.accuracy.org). Research assistance and special thanks to Bob Lederer.

The Derailing of Social Security

For many years, Social Security was supposed to be the third rail of American politics–not to be touched by officials who valued their political lives. This unique power resulted from an irresistible combination of affection and clout: Social Security was appreciated as the most successful anti-poverty program in America, and its clout came from the millions of voters from all walks of life who received checks every month, without fail.

But by late 1998 it was beginning to look like the 63-year-old program was facing forced retirement, and would be rejected for a younger, sexier model. Two conservative think tanks, with funding from investment firms with plenty to gain from a privatized system, have worked hard, and effectively, to undermine the loyalty of the U.S. public, and politicians.

If Social Security as we know it is cast off like a rejected first wife by this Congress, it will be because of the slow but steady deterioration of public support over more than a decade. Dorcas Hardy, Reagan’s Social Security commissioner, wanted to privatize Social Security, but the idea seemed so weird that it received little serious attention–especially from the public.

It became obvious that privatization would not receive substantial public support until the public’s faith in the Social Security system had dramatically eroded–but to do that the public needed to be convinced that there was a crisis, not in some far future time, but now. And so, the “fact” that Social Security was going broke, or was already bankrupt, became a recurring theme trumpeted by the pro-privatization pundits of the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute.

The bankruptcy myth

Over the years, the statement has been made so many times and repeated by so many people that many Americans now believe that Social Security is bankrupt, or will be any day now. My personal experience is that most reporters assume that it is so. And yet nothing is further from the truth.

Last year, Social Security paid out $383 billion in checks, and received $436 billion in taxes and an additional $49 billion in interest. Instead of red ink, Social Security made almost $102 billion in profit, to add to the more than $652 billion it had in profits from previous years.

I suppose there are some folks who aren’t impressed by a program with an annual surplus of more than $100 billion and “end of the year assets” of more than $756 billion, but even they can’t call it bankrupt, a term that means “lacking funds” or “unable to pay one’s debts.” A more accurate description of the Social Security program is to say that it is rolling in money, that it has an enormous surplus that is growing every year, and will be for years to come.

The Trustees of the Social Security System use very conservative (that is to say, pessimistic) assumptions in forecasting their program’s financial future. (See “TV on Social Security: It’s Broke, Fix It”) But even using their figures, it is not until sometime after 2020 that the program will collect less in taxes and interest than it pays in benefit checks, and even then, it will have more than $1 trillion in the Social Security Trust Fund, left from previous years. Their most recent estimate is that, for the next 34 years, the taxes that are collected, when added to interest and money from the Trust Fund, will be sufficient to pay all the benefits currently planned.

It is not until 2034 that the Trustees project that there will be no money left in the Trust Fund, and not enough taxes to pay all the benefits that are expected. But even when the Trust Fund is empty, and for the foreseeable decades thereafter, the Trustees expect there will be enough taxes to pay 75 percent of the planned benefits.

And yet experts from the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute have repeatedly and falsely claimed that Social Security is bankrupt–and the media have let them get away with it. For example, in an executive summary of a June 1998 report entitled “Social Security’s $20 Trillion Shortfall,” the Heritage Foundation author, Daniel J. Mitchell, flatly claimed “the Social Security system is bankrupt.” When Mitchell repeated that lie on Good Morning America the following month (7/26/98), the ABC reporter interrupted him–not to correct him, but to indirectly support his views by pointing out that 84 percent of participants in a survey on ABC’s website favored some sort of privatization.

Of course, ABC is not the only network that fails to challenge the misinformation of these think tanks. In January 1998 on CNN’s Newsday and again in December 1998 on CNN’s Your Money, the anchors claimed that “Social Security starts having cash-flow problems just 14 years from now.” According to actuaries at Social Security, at the end of 2015, which is 17 years after that broadcast, Social Security will have assets of almost $2 trillion. I’d like to have cash flow problems like that!

Are these pro-privatization pundits unable to read those tiny numbers on the charts that Social Security makes public every year, or is there something else going on? The statements about bankruptcy are clearly just wrong, but the claims of cash flow problems seem to reflect their view that since the Trust Fund is filled with government bonds instead of stacks of paper money, these assets are not real.

These funds were borrowed from the trust fund by the U.S. Treasury, under the condition that they would be paid back with interest. But Cato, Heritage and others apparently view these funds as gone forever. For example, in a column in the L.A. Times (12/7/98), Cato’s Michael Tanner refers to the Trust Fund as “little more than an accounting fiction.” Washington Post columnist James Glassman, who is also an American Enterprise Institute fellow, refers to these hundreds of billions of dollars as if they were irrelevant (11/24/98). Glassman tells us that the Trust Fund consists of what little was “left over–and there hasn’t been much” after the checks are sent to beneficiaries. In fact, these “left-overs” currently amount to $730 billion.

Privatization, not preservation

Now that half of America is persuaded that Social Security is a riskier bet than a Superbowl game (Oppenheimer Funds Newswire, 1/21/99), the next step is to try to convince everyone that privatization, rather than preservation, is the answer. Since the goal is to bring wavering Democrats on board, the next strategy was to issue reports claiming that minorities and women would particularly benefit from Social Security privatization. Once again, facts did not get in the way of ideology.

As a dramatic first step, last year the Heritage Foundation published a report claiming that Social Security is a bad deal for African-Americans and Latinos. The report received considerable coverage and was widely quoted by major media–for example, Rep. Mark Sanford (R.=N.C.) claimed in a Washington Post op-ed (6/7/98) that “a single male born in 1975 and living in Charlie Rangel’s [mostly minority] New York district is guaranteed a negative 6.4 percent rate of return.”

CNN (1/13/98) reported that “an African-American male born in 1970, single with a high income, would see a nearly 4 percent negative rate of return because of shorter life expectancy.” This example should have raised immediate skepticism, since men with high income, regardless of race, tend to live longer lives, not shorter.

In fact, the Heritage Foundation’s estimates were fatally flawed and totally inaccurate, based on “a glaring error,” according to a former chief actuary of the Social Security Administration (The Actuary, 9/98). Current Social Security Administration officials have also corrected the Heritage report, and concluded that non-whites actually do at least as well if not better than whites. Many of the TV networks and news magazines were strangely silent, but Business Week (12/14/98) ran a outspoken critique entitled “Red-Faced Over Social Security: A Conservative Think Tank’s Boo-Boo.” In contrast, CNN repeated the exact same example of a short-changed African-American that they had used in January 1998 for a story that they used one year later (Your Money, 1/18/99).

Cato took the lead on the women’s issue, writing a well-publicized report (CNN, 7/20/98) claiming that women would greatly benefit from privatization. The claim was immediately questioned by women’s advocates–if women earn less than men, and are the main beneficiaries of Social Security’s benefits for widows and non-working spouses, how could they benefit from a program where benefits are more closely tied to earnings?

In this case, Cato’s claim was possible because they conveniently ignored the enormous transition costs of privatization. By pretending that all the money that is now paid as Social Security taxes could instead be invested in stocks and bonds for each individual’s private account, Cato researchers were able to conclude that women would benefit. In order to make their point, Cato researchers ignored the cuts in benefits that had been included in every serious privatization plan, all of which disproportionately harmed women (Congressional Quarterly, 4/28/98).

The Heritage and Cato estimates also ignore another major factor: Social Security taxes don’t only pay for our retirement, they also help to support children whose working parents have died, as well as widows and severely disabled individuals who are unable to work to support themselves. These are the people who most desperately need Social Security, but the pro-privatizers hope that nobody will notice that their economic security isn’t even mentioned in the reform plans–and on this point, the privatizers have usually been right.


Diana Zuckerman is director of the Social Security Project of the National Association of Commissions for Women.

The Right’s “Race Desk”

Anyone remotely familiar with conservative think tanks’ diatribes regarding such hot-button race issues as affirmative action (they’re against it), bilingual education (they’re against it), multiculturalism (they’re against it), welfare “reform” (they support it) or tougher criminal sentencing (they support it) would not be surprised by the American Enterprise Institute’s analyses of race issues in the United States.

Still, even for the initiated, the ferocity of AEI’s work on race is quite breathtaking. Although the mainstream media are now deploring the overt racism of hate groups such as the Council of Conservative Citizens (see this issue of Extra!), the fact is that there is an overlap between the analyses of “respectable” conservatives, like those at AEI, and the overt racial hatred of white supremacist organizations like CCC.

The differences between the hate-mongering of the CCC and mainstream conservative thought should not obscure the fact that both are at base fundamentally concerned with the question of how to manage the “hordes of color” who have long outnumbered Europeans globally, and soon will be the majority in this country.

CCC expresses this concern explicitly: “We’re only 9 percent of the world’s population, white Europeans, and our country’s going to majority nonwhite soon,” Gordon Lee Baum, the council’s CEO, complained in a Washington Post interview (1/17/99). “Why can’t European Americans be concerned with this genocide? Is that racial to say that?” CCC’s strategy for dealing with this is re-segregation, an attack on interracial marriages, closing U.S. borders to immigrants of color and tacit support of the Ku Klux Klan.

The same concern about global and national reality of European populations being outnumbered by non-European populations is implicit, occasionally even explicit, in the work of AEI fellows. In a New York Times Magazine (11/23/97) story on declining population growth rates, for example, AEI’s Ben Wattenberg fretted:

The West has been the driving force of modern civilization, inexorably pushing towards democratic values. Will that continue when its share of the total [global] population is only 11 percent? Perhaps as less developed countries modernize, they will assimilate Western views. Perhaps the 21st will be another “American century.” Perhaps not.

AEI’s origins

AEI’s origins are in the heart of the business-oriented conservative community. Hoping to match the influence Robert S. Brookings had achieved via the Brookings Institution, Johns-Manville chief Lewis Brown founded AEI in 1943 as an intellectual counterweight to New Deal philosophy. Initially known less as a center of research and thinking than as an uncritical defender of big business, AEI underwent a major change in reputation between 1977 and 1986 under the leadership of William Baroody Jr.

Baroody used the publicity skills he had honed in the White House Public Liaison Office of the Nixon and Ford administrations to change AEI’s image from “that of a pro-corporation lunatic fringe” (Soley, The News Shapers) to that of a mainstream conservative think tank. Baroody started AEI’s massive publicity campaigns, which included press releases about its seminars, forums and policy proposals, sending opinion pieces to newspapers and distributing free radio commentaries to broadcast stations.

While the publicity campaign helped improve AEI’s image with the media, Baroody’s hiring of former Ford administration officials after the Republicans’ 1976 electoral defeat was also instrumental. Baroody hired such big names as Herbert Stein, chair of Nixon’s Council of Economic Advisers; David Gergen, a Nixon/Ford speechwriter and communications expert; Philip Habib, Kissinger’s shuttle diplomat; and former President Gerald Ford himself.

AEI’s PR efforts increased the groups fundraising ability as well as its visibility; Ford hosted an annual “World Forum” in Vail, Colorado, where the Baroody bunch hobnobbed with the wealthy. Baroody’s strategy was extremely successful, turning AEI into a $9 million, 154-person Republican government-in-waiting. AEI employees who eventually became high-level Reagan officials included James C. Miller, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Murray Weidenbaum and Antonin Scalia.

Despite (or because of) its close ties to Reagan administration appointees and policies, the AEI became a leading source of guests for PBS’s NewsHour during the 1980s. Between January 1982 and October 1990, AEI spokespersons appeared on the NewsHour 142 times, an average of 1.4 appearances per month–almost twice as often as representatives from the Carnegie Endowment or Brookings Institution (Soley, The News Shapers).

Money on the right

While AEI appeared very conservative in the late 1970s when compared to the Carter administration, during the early years of the Reagan administration the political center shifted. Think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation were further to the right, and attracted the attention and money of conservative donors. Donations to AEI declined, causing both a financial and ideological crisis at the organization. AEI’s then-chair William C. Butcher, chief executive officer of Chase Manhattan Bank, fired Baroody, and in December 1986 appointed Christopher DeMuth, a former staff assistant to President Nixon and a publicist in Reagan’s Office of Management and Budget.

Under DeMuth, AEI has made a dramatic rightward shift. In addition to such well-known conservatives as Irving Kristol, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Lynne Cheney and Richard Perle, AEI currently houses what amounts to a “race desk” made up of Judge Robert H. Bork, the John M. Olin Scholar in Legal Studies; Dinesh D’Souza, a John M. Olin Research Fellow; and Charles Murray, a Bradley Fellow.

Note the involvement here of well-known conservative foundations like Olin and Bradley. In their book, No Mercy: How Conservative Think Tanks and Foundations Changed America’s Social Agenda, Jean Stefancic and Richard Delgado report that in 1991 Bork received $150,880 from such sources; D’Souza got $98,400 plus an additional $20,000 to promote his controversial book, Illiberal Education.

AEI has at times received criticism for the overtly anti-black views of its most visible racial analysts. But certainly the publicity surrounding D’Souza and Murray has not hurt AEI’s fundraising. AEI’s 1997 Annual Report shows revenues totaled $18.6 million, with roughly equal amounts coming from foundations, corporations and individuals, and the remaining 18 percent from conferences, sales and other revenues. Expenses totaled only $14.3 million, with AEI investing the surplus in building its endowment, and prefunding future research.

Deborah Toler is a member of the Institute for Public Accuracy’s editorial board. Research assistance was provided by Nihar Bhatt.

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Sidebar:

Slouching Towards Bigotry: AEI’s Racial Fellows

Robert Bork’s Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline is an extended screed warning about the demise of “bourgeois culture” and the rise of a “degenerate society.” The signs of degeneracy that he detects often have a racial tinge:

We hear one day of the latest rap song calling for killing policemen or the sexual mutilation of women; the next of coercive left-wing political indoctrination at a prestigious university, then of the latest homicide figures for New York, Los Angeles, or the District of Columbia; of the collapse of the criminal justice system, which displays an inability to punish adequately and, often enough, an inability to convict the clearly guilty; of the rising rate of illegitimate births, the uninhibited display of sexuality and the popularization of violence in our entertainment; worsening racial tensions, the angry activists of feminism, homosexuality, environmentalism, animal rights–the list could be extended almost indefinitely.

Rap music, for Bork as for other AEI writers, is a symbol of what is most “sick” about African-American culture. He wrote in his book that it is “little more than noise with a beat,” that the lyrics often range from “the perverse to the mercifully unintelligible,” and that “it is difficult to convey just how debased it is.”

The New York Times (9/24/96) concluded that Slouching Towards Gomorrah is in the end “an ugly and intemperate book,” but not before the reviewer noted Bork was on target in his criticisms of “self-esteem” (i.e. multicultural) programs in schools, and in his insistence that it is equality of opportunity, not outcomes, that Americans should seek.

Legalizing discrimination

Dinesh D’Souza is clearly one of AEI’s “superstars”–ranking his own page on AEI’s website of fellows’ biographies. D’Souza has impeccable conservative credentials. Arriving in the United States at age 16 in 1978 on a Rotary Scholarship, D’Souza became editor-in-chief for the Dartmouth Review, the notorious right-wing college paper (also heavily supported by the Olin Foundation). He later became managing editor of the Heritage Foundation’s Policy Review, and served as a policy adviser in the Reagan administration.

D’Souza’s Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus– a compendium of anecdotes purportedly documenting the horrors of political correctness and affirmative action on college campuses–propelled him into the media spotlight. D’Souza’s recent The End of Racism was so patently offensive that staunch black conservatives Robert Woodson and Glenn Loury both denounced the book and severed their ties with AEI in protest.

The book is specifically about African-Americans, who, according to D’Souza, should stop using institutional racism as an “excuse” for their “failure” to achieve what whites and Asians have achieved. Instead, they should accept that they are held back by a “culture of poverty” consisting of high crime and illegitimacy rates, and dependency on welfare and other government programs.

In a stance not so different from that of the CCC, D’Souza advocates legalizing racial discrimination. “What we need is a long-term strategy that holds the government to a rigorous standard of race neutrality,” he wrote in The End of Racism, “while allowing private actors to be free to discriminate as they wish.” In D’Souza’s vision, “individuals and companies would be allowed to discriminate in private transactions such as renting an apartment or hiring for a job.” Lest there be any doubt as to his intent, D’Souza states: “Am I calling for the repeal of the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Actually, yes.”

Welcoming The Bell Curve

D’Souza does, however, dissent from his colleague Charles Murray’s genetic explanations for poverty in communities of color. As a fellow at the Manhattan Institute during the 1980s, Murray wrote Losing Ground, a book that provided the blueprint for the Reagan administration’s attacks on welfare. This book was extremely influential in shaping the welfare “reform” legislation that ultimately passed under President Clinton (Extra!, 3-4/98).

But when Murray began to write The Bell Curve, with Richard Herrnstein (now deceased) as co-author, his thesis was too extreme even for the Manhattan Institute. He soon found a welcome mat for his racialist views at AEI.

The Bell Curve makes the turn-of-the century argument that blacks’ intractable IQ deficiencies, and not racism, are responsible for their disproportionate poverty and incarceration rates. The book and the controversy it caused made the covers of The New Republic (10/31/94), Newsweek (10/24/94) and the New York Times Magazine (10/9/94). The book also got a glowing review in the New York Times Book Review (10/16/94; see Extra!, 1-2/95).

Other important AEI contributors to the race debate include theologian Michael Novak and Ben Wattenberg. Novak, a welfare specialist, makes religious arguments that capitalism offers the best hope for the poor. He maintains that welfare breeds dishonesty, as recipients try to circumvent the rules and taxpayers engage in tax-cheating to avoid paying the cost for these programs.

Wattenberg worries about the death of Western civilization under current cultural patterns in the U.S., and like his colleagues opposes “proportionalism” (i.e., affirmative action). Wattenberg’s television show, Think Tank, is funded by Olin, along with the William H. Donner and JM foundations.

–D.T.


Think Tank Monitor is a joint project of FAIR and the Institute for Public Accuracy. Research assistance: Nihar Bhatt, Jenifer Dixon and Omar Nashashibi.

Twisted Policy on Iraq

President Clinton, in his address to the nation just after ordering the bombing of Iraq last month on the eve of his scheduled impeachment vote, claimed that while “other countries possess weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles, with Saddam there’s one big difference. He has used them, not once but repeatedly.” Clinton failed to mention that our government was rather chummy with Hussein when he was using such weapons.

The president then played psychic, insisting that unless we bomb, “Saddam Hussein will use these terrible weapons again” — ignoring the fact that he did not use them during the Gulf War.

“Without the sanctions” against Iraq, Clinton continued, there would be “less food for [Iraq’s] people.” Can anybody believe that? UNICEF studies show that 5,000 Iraqi children are dying every month as a result of the sanctions. The sanctions are the opposite of  “smart bombs” (inflated as that concept is): Sanctions actually target the weakest people in society — children, the elderly, the sick.

Clinton is being disingenuous when he says that “so long as Iraq remains out of compliance, we will work with the international community to maintain and enforce the economic sanctions.” In fact, the administration has undermined the international consensus by insisting that the economic sanctions continue even if Iraq complies with the weapons inspectors.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in March 1997 declared: “We do not agree with the nations who argue that if Iraq complies with its obligations concerning weapons of mass destruction, sanctions should be lifted.” This twisted U.S. policy is totally contrary to U.N. Resolution 687, which states that when Iraq complies with the weapons inspectors, the sanctions “shall have no further force or effect.”

“I am a Baptist,” Clinton stated as he was about to take office. “I believe in death-bed conversions. If he [Saddam Hussein] wants a different relationship with the United States and the United Nations, all he has to do is change his behavior.” Immediately, as commentators attacked the incoming president for such politically incorrect notions, Clinton backtracked the next day, saying: “There is no difference between my policy and the policy of the present [Bush] administration” — that is, the sanctions would stay in place so long as Saddam Hussein does. This has ensured another six years of hell for 20 million Iraqis.

This policy of keeping the economic sanctions in place regardless of compliance with UNSCOM has apparently succeeded in destroying UNSCOM. The practice of maintaining the sanctions whatever Iraq’s actions was applied to the recent bombing, as Clinton attacked Iraq without stating what Iraq could do to put a stop to the bombing. UNSCOM ceased to be an instrument of weapons inspections and became rather an excuse for bombing.

Now, in a cynical gesture, the administration makes a show of offering to lift the cap on the “oil-for-food” program — although Iraq’s devastated infrastructure cannot produce the amount of oil currently allowed by the United Nations.

This administration claims its bombings and enforcement of the “no-fly” zones are U.N.-mandated, while actually these administration policies are undermining international law. In fact, last month the retiring Rep. David Skaggs (D-Colo.) pointedly raised a legal issue, noting that “President Clinton acted in violation of the Constitution in ordering these attacks without authority of Congress.” Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights notes perhaps the supreme irony — “legally, Clinton’s unauthorized bombing is more impeachable than his lies about Lewinsky.”

Last month’s bombing was not instigated, like previous standoffs, by Iraq’s expelling inspectors but by a report by UNSCOM head Richard Butler. Citing sources, The Post reported that “Clinton administration officials played a direct role in shaping Butler’s text during multiple conversations with him [two days before the bombing] at secure facilities in the U.S. mission to the U.N.”

When Iraq was reducing compliance this summer, claiming that UNSCOM inspectors were spies, Clinton officials said they would take action at a “time and place of our choosing.” Both the Iraqis and the administration were far more prescient than anyone could have imagined.

Still, the real issue is the policy, not its timing. Sanctions and bombing; killing slowly and killing quickly. Killing Iraqis is not a strategy.


The writer is communications director of the Institute for Public Accuracy.
This article originally appeared in the Washington Post (1/26/99).

The Ever-Present Yet Nonexistent Poor

As a poverty specialist for the conservative Heritage Foundation, Robert Rector is one of the right-wing media machine’s most prolific pundits. In 1996, the year of the welfare reform debate, he was cited in media outlets an average of more than 15 times a month (Nexis). Rector also feeds a vast network of right-wing talkshow hosts and syndicated columnists who pick up and broadcast his findings. Yet for all his influence, Rector’s work is a mess of misleading statistics and specious arguments all contrived to accomplish a single goal: to cut spending on the poor.

In 1995, Rector testified before Congress that “since the onset of the War on Poverty, the U.S. has spent over $5.3 trillion on welfare. But during the same period, the official poverty rate has remained virtually unchanged.” Rector’s figure–which he soon updated to $5.4 trillion–is grossly misleading: It includes huge amounts of spending not directed towards families on welfare.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calculated that approximately 70 percent of the federal spending that Rector classified as “welfare” went to households that did not receive Aid to Families With Dependent Children, the core welfare program in recent decades. Instead, most of the money went to non-AFDC households with elderly, disabled or “medically needy” individuals, as well as students and low-income workers–not groups most people would associate with “welfare.”

Even if Rector’s $5.4 trillion figure were accurate, it would need to be put in perspective. Spending on “national defense” since 1964 overshadows even Rector’s inflated “welfare” number, exceeding $8 trillion at the time of Rector’s testimony–and that figure does not include spending on intelligence, foreign military aid and other military-related items.

Despite its flimsiness, Rector’s charge echoed through the media. The Los Angeles Times published a column by Rector (7/11/95) making the $5.4 trillion claim. He repeated the figure on a PBS NewsHour panel (12/26/95). Tony Snow picked it up in a column in USA Today (9/25/95) and Linda Bowles published it in a Chicago Tribune column (7/31/96). Syndicated columnist Walter Williams then placed it in the Cincinnati Enquirer (11/26/95) and Dallas Morning News (12/9/95), among other papers. The figure reappeared in the Arizona Republic this year in a news article about welfare fraud (4/19/98).

Erasing Hunger

Despite his 1995 claim before Congress that 30 years of welfare spending had not reduced poverty, Rector has at the same time argued for years that poverty has fallen so steeply since the War on Poverty that virtually no one in America today is really poor (see Footnote*). This argument was enunciated by Rector in a 1990 Heritage Foundation “Backgrounder” titled “How ‘Poor’ Are America’s Poor?” and Rector has updated the paper several times since then–always around the September release of the Census Bureau’s annual poverty report. Rector’s report is given a different name each time it’s released–this year’s version was called “The Myth of Widespread American Poverty”–but the content is virtually identical from one year to the next.

Rector writes in the 1998 report that “despite frequent charges of widespread hunger in the United States, 84 percent of the poor report their families have ‘enough’ food to eat; 13 percent state they ‘sometimes’ do not have enough to eat, and 3 percent say they ‘often’ do not have enough to eat.” But his figures are taken from the “food sufficiency” portion of the 1988-1991 Health and Nutrition Examination Survey conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services, which is considered by many researchers to be an inadequate measure of hunger. He fails to mention in his report the authoritative 1995 Food Security Survey, performed by the Census Bureau on behalf of the USDA, which was designed to improve upon the old “food sufficiency” measure.

The Census study found that in addition to the 14 percent of poor individuals found to be hungry that year, another 25 percent of the poor were classified as “food insecure.” That means those households had a “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” For example, 81 percent of respondents in households classified as “food insecure” said that sometimes in the past 12 months the food that they bought “just didn’t last” and they “didn’t have money to get more.” 63 percent said they could sometimes provide “only a few kinds of low-cost food to feed the children” because they “were running out of money to buy food.”

Nationwide, 13.8 percent of Americans, poor and non-poor, were either hungry or food insecure–a number identical to the 13.8 percent poverty rate that year. In other words, while it is true that not every person counted as officially poor lacked food, for every officially poor person who didn’t lack food, another (officially “non-poor”) person did.

Curiously, despite his omission of the Census Bureau’s more recent findings, Rector was not unaware of them; he refers to the Census Bureau’s study in a footnote. One can only wonder how Rector happened to come across the newer report while leaving out its salient findings.

The Wealthy Poor

Rector makes much of the fact that many poor people own cars. “Seventy percent of ‘poor’ households own a car; 27 percent own two or more cars.” But Rector does not stop to consider that many of these households might need cars to get to their jobs. In fact, the 69.7 percent of poor households that Rector reports as having one or more cars in 1995 roughly mirrors the 61.4 percent of poor households with one or more workers in that year.

Rector has claimed that “poor Americans live in larger houses or apartments” than “the general population in Western Europe.” Presumably as evidence of this assertion, he included in this year’s report a chart titled “International Comparison of Living Space.” However, what the chart actually compares is the average floor space per person in certain European cities, such as Paris and Athens, with the average floor space in all poor U.S. households–22 percent of whom live in rural areas and 33 percent of whom live in suburbs. (Even with such an egregious bias, his numbers are underwhelming: The mostly rural and suburban homes of the U.S. poor are only about one-fourth larger than the average home in notoriously crowded Paris.)

The intent of Rector’s dubious number-crunching was to make his point that “there is a huge gap between the ‘poor’ as defined by the Census Bureau and what most ordinary Americans consider to be poverty.” He was more right than he knew. That same year, the National Opinion Research Center conducted a poll of “ordinary Americans” asking the question: “What amount of weekly income would you use as a poverty line for a family of four (husband, wife and two children) in this community?” The official poverty line for such a family that year was $14,654 a year, or $282 weekly. Sixty-four percent of respondents suggested a figure greater than $282.

The following year, the Center for the Study of Policy Attitudes conducted a poll in which respondents were told the current poverty line and asked whether they thought the line should be “set higher, set lower, or kept about the same.” Fifty-eight percent said the poverty line should be higher and 32 percent said it should be kept about the same. Only 7 percent said it should be lower. The respondents who thought the poverty line should be changed suggested an average level of $19,400–more than $4,600 higher than the actual level that year. (Given the percentage of “non-poor” people who have trouble buying enough food, this seems like a more realistic standard.)

All these flaws did not keep Rector’s poverty “research” from being taken seriously by various media outlets–not just by Rush Limbaugh (9/25/98). His most recent paper prompted a news article in the Atlanta Journal & Constitution (9/25/98) and columns in such papers as the Kansas City Star (9/26/98), Christian Science Monitor (10/7/98) and Chicago Tribune (11/25/98).

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[FOOTNOTE:] * Rector tries to reconcile these arguments by cautioning that “higher material living standards should not be regarded as a victory for the War on Poverty. Living conditions were improving dramatically and poverty was dropping sharply long before the War on Poverty began.” But if these “dramatically” improved living conditions did not come from government programs, where had they come from? Certainly not from an improved job market; in January 1995, when Rector presented his testimony to Congress, jobs were neither better-paying nor more plentiful than they had been two decades earlier. The unemployment rate was a half-point higher than in 1973 and real hourly wages for the bottom tenth of workers were 12 percent lower.


Think Tank Monitor is a joint project of FAIR and the Institute for Public Accuracy.