This meme is the sort of thing that used to infest Yahoo! mailboxes of the early 2000s, the kind that your blowhard uncle would forward from some guy in his church group or his golf buddy, the kind where you had to scroll through five dozen “Fwd:” headers before you actually got to the stupid point.
It goes without saying that this isn’t a true story—you’d have to be an exceptionally credulous simpleton (that is to say, the target audience for this meme) to believe a well-meaning little girl really set up such a perfect opening for a quick-witted conservative, who then effortlessly came through with a brilliant teaching point, liberating the girl ever after from the malign influence of her fuzzy-headed liberal parents and bringing her into the light of clear-eyed conservatism. No, this is a parable, New Testament-style—except with Jesus preaching on behalf of the money-changers instead of the lepers.
The protagonist of this parable, the girl earning $50, represents “real Americans”–the Randian makers, the middle-income, middle-class folks who work hard all day, only to have Uncle Sam pick their pocket at end of watch. The homeless guy hanging out by the grocery store represents the “47 percent” of Mitt Romney’s imagination—the indolent, taking, parasitic “Other” who infests our inner cities. This meme reflects a belief, almost entirely baseless but strongly held by millions of Americans: the Government mostly just steals wealth from the middle class and delivers it to the underclass, who spend it on cell phones, cable, cigarettes, and booze.
Reallocation of resources from one part of society to the other, administered by the apparatus of state, is indeed a real thing; it’s what taxation is. But how does government-run resource reallocation in the United States work in the real world, rather than in fantasy-land?
In the parable, the Middle Class Girl earns $50 for an honest day’s labor, and then all of it is given over to the Underclass Man. This is like saying the government taxes income at a marginal rate of 100%, and 100% of tax receipts go over to welfare spending. Here in the real world, the Middle Class Girl, if she earned the median income for an American household (about $50,000 annually) would lose around 20% of it to federal taxes.
(This is a simplification and an approximation; we’re using math that FOX News viewers might have at least a chance of understanding. If you’re interested in the wonkish details, check out this footnote at the bottom of the page: ).
Furthermore, the Middle Class Girl wouldn’t do manual labor like mowing lawns and weeding; that sort of thing is left to working-class Americans; overwhelmingly immigrants of the documented and undocumented variety .
So what happens to the $10 (20% of $50) the federal government takes from the Middle Class Girl’s paycheck? The parable’s author would have you believe all of it goes straight into the grubby hands of the Underclass Man. In reality, most of what the federal government spends money on has nothing to do with “welfare.” In 2012, 19 cents of every dollar of federal receipts went to a single government agency–the Department of Defense. A more or less equal amount went to the Medicare behemoth and her perky kid sister, Medicaid . Another 22% went to Social Security. Six percent went to paying interest on our considerable national debt, and 20% went to “non-defense discretionary spending,” the programs that Congress must specifically vote to fund every year—things like veteran’s benefits, repairs to decaying interstate highway bridges, and exploring Mars with jetpack-equipped robots. That leaves 12% for what liberals call the “social safety net” and conservatives call “welfare”.
But wait, there’s more! That 12% figure includes things like the Earned Income Tax Credit (available only to working Americans, not unemployed second-handers like the Underclass Man); school lunches; and community block development grants for local non-profits that provide aid to abused children and the like. Only 44% of safety-net programs are the things commonly called “welfare”: SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the much-derided “food stamps” recently cut by House Republicans); housing assistance; and TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families)–the legendary “welfare check.”
Now, in the conservative imagination, the Underclass Man is an able-bodied, mentally healthy adult who chooses not to work, spending his days panhandling on street corners and his nights shuffling drunkenly from dive bar to liquor store (because living on the streets is so much easier than the alternatives, one presumes). In reality, about a quarter of homeless Americans are temporarily-displaced families who sleep on the couches of friends and relatives; another quarter to third have a disability, a chemical addiction, or both). But insofar as these lazy grifters who choose not to work do exist, there’s not much Uncle Sam does for them—TANF, as the name implies, is for families only. Single, healthy, childless adults who have never worked (or have long stopped searching for work) are eligible for precisely two federal safety-net programs: SNAP and housing assistance—together accounting for whopping 4.75% of the federal budget.
So, an accurate version of the Parable of the Middle Class Girl and the Underclass Man would look more like this: the Middle Class girl makes $50 managing Excel spreadsheets from nine to five, with a lunch break. She pockets $40, then lights a dollar bill on fire–this represents the money being wasted every day on the occupation of Afghanistan. Then she gives another dollar to a retired Air Force colonel currently working a lucrative job for a defense contractor, so that he can continue to get free medical care for life. Then she gives four dollars to a retired Baby Boomer (two dollars each for Medicare and Social Security) who lectures her about how entitled her useless generation is . She gives sixty cents to the Chinese government (the interest payment on national debt). She drops a couple bucks’ worth of assorted loose change in various charity jars labeled with names like “NASA” and “National Park Service.” Then, finally, the Middle Class girl gives forty-eight cents to the Underclass Man so that he can pay rent for his public housing and buy some food at the grocery store (but not hot food; we wouldn’t want to coddle the poor, after all).
At the end of the parable, the victorious conservative smarms, “Welcome to the Republican Party.” In the real world, in order to be a Republican in good standing, the Middle Class girl would have start crying hysterically that socialist liberals were trying to steal those 48 cents from her.
– – –
 Median household income is ~$50,000. If we assume that the Middle Class girl is in business for herself, like a good Randian maker (working for others is for proles, after all) then she has to pay 12.4% of her earnings into the Social Security fund, and then 2.9% into Medicare (these two together are called FICA, the Federal Insurance Contribution Act). In theory, this money can only be used for the Social Security and Medicare trust. What’s left of her income is then taxed at a top marginal rate of 15%; under these circumstances, the overall Federal tax burden can reach as high as 23% of income. If, on the other hand, the Middle Class girl is workin’ for the man, she only has to pay half of FICA; if she’s married with children and takes exemptions, the standard deduction, and various middle-class tax credits, she might get away with sending as little as 13% of that $50,000 to Washington. 20% total tax burden is on the high side for median-income Americans. If you find the U.S. tax code as fascinating as we do here at Alaska Commons, check out this website, which allows you to adjust all these variables and see what your tax burden would be: http://www.aarp.org/money/taxes/1040_tax_calculator/
 The only folks who make the median household income doing manual labor are those in union jobs in the skilled trades, but let’s set aside organized labor’s nefarious plot to raise living standards for working Americans for now.
 It should be noted that the most extreme right-wing ideologues consider Medicaid–which provides subsidized medical care to disabled Americans and impoverished children–a form of “welfare,” but it’s not what most people think of when they hear the word. It should be further noted that Medicare could also reasonably be considered a form of welfare, but because it benefits inter alia retired middle-class white people, it’s never spoken of as such. It should be further further noted that a great deal of what the Department of Defense does–subsidized supermarkets and shopping malls, free medical care for life for its retirees, subsidized child care, and the like–is run a giant welfare state, but as you can imagine it’s also rarely spoken of as such.
 This document contains more information than you want to know about the annual federal budget, breaking it down line-by-line: http://www.whitehouse.gov/files/documents/budget_2012.pdf. The website this comes from is pretty sketch–it’s run by a radical Marxist socialist from Kenya–so if you want something more reliable try http://www.usgovernmentspending.com/year2012_0.html
 This is actually more than a little unfair to DOD; in reality about 41% of its budget goes into what’s called “Operations and Maintenance,” and only part of this goes to the Afghanistan uselessness (check out to see how your tax dollars are at work over there); much of it goes to more productive things like training exercises with our Asian and European allies and maintaining freedom of the seas. 22% goes to personnel, which includes not just that double-dipping retired colonel’s pension but also rather more understandable things like active-duty service-members getting their basic pay, which is rather understandable.
 In theory, at least, the Middle Class Girl will recoup some of what she pays into Social Security and Medicare when she retires from her hard work; so if you prefer you can imagine that she puts the four dollars into a piggy bank and hopes Republicans don’t raid it the next time they’re in charge.
 Food stamps cannot be used to purchase hot food: http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/retailers/eligible.htm