The reality is that the price tag for most anti-poverty programs is quite small relative to the total federal budget. For example, Head Start accounts for approximately 0.2 percent of the federal budget, or 20 cents of every $100 of spending. Less than 60 cents of every hundred dollars of federal spending goes to TANF [Temporary Assistance to Needy Families]. The appropriations for child care subsidies, assistance for the homeless, and the nutrition programs for young children are considerably smaller.
Yet most people believe that these anti-poverty programs take up a large share of the budget. When the question is asked on opinion polls, people regularly cite welfare as one of the largest items in the federal budget.
The confusion on this point is understandable. Most people never hear that TANF costs 0.6 percent of the budget or that Head Start only takes up 0.2 percent of federal spending. They hear that TANF costs $16 billion a year and that Head Start costs $6 billion. These sums sound very large and scary. They are vastly larger than the amount of money a typical person will see or deal with in his lifetime. Since almost no one, apart from a few DC policy wonks, has any idea of how large the federal budget is, the impression that most people get from these budget numbers is that the country is spending an enormous amount of money on these programs.
If people believe that we are already spending vast sums on welfare-type programs, they are quite reasonably reluctant to spend more. After all, if we are spending a huge amount of money on anti-poverty programs already, and so many people are still in poverty, why would we think that spending even more money would make any difference? Also, if people think that a large portion of the budget is going to anti-poverty programs, then they may think that increasing the size of these programs will mean a big tax hit – or conversely, that cutting these programs would allow for large tax cuts. For these reasons, it is important that the public have some knowledge of the true size of these programs if they are to gain more popular support.