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Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher February 1, 2022

Fact-checking whether Biden’s Build Back Better would be largest expansion of welfare in 60 years

If Your Time is short

  • The bill would spend $1.75 trillion over 10 years, not $4 trillion, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

  • There’s no universal agreement on what constitutes a welfare program. But much of the bill would pay for initiatives clearly not identified as welfare, including $555 billion to fight climate change.

  • Many of the bill’s provisions aimed at helping individuals are not directed to non-working or low-income people.

To break out of the pack of GOP candidates running for an open U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania, Republican Carla Sands ran an ad attacking what she called President Joe Biden’s "socialist" Build Back Better legislation.

Sands, who is former President Donald Trump's ambassador to Denmark, made a claim about welfare that we wanted to check.

In the 30-second video, which is featured on her campaign website and which ran for a month on YouTube, Sands stands behind a table that holds a stack of paper and a shredding machine. 

"This stack of paper is the 2,100 pages in Joe Biden’s $4 trillion spending bill," Sands states as she holds up a page entitled H.R. 5376. That is the bill number for Build Back Better. 

As she feeds the shredder, Sands makes several claims about the bill, the most specific being that it is "the largest expansion of welfare programs in 60 years."

There are three issues we looked at in evaluating this claim: the size of the bill, how much it devotes to programs that might be considered welfare, and how that compares historically. We concluded that Sands gets a basic fact wrong, while her broader point about welfare spending isn’t clearly supported.

First, Build Back Better would spend $1.75 trillion over 10 years, not $4 trillion. 

As for how much it devotes to welfare, that’s difficult to say, because there’s no clear definition of welfare. The bill would raise spending for social safety-net programs, including for low-income people, but it also includes $555 billion to fight climate change, nearly a third of the total.

That complicates the third question, how it compares historically to other legislation.

"There is no question that the package is among the most significant expansions of social welfare since the Great Society/War on Poverty programs in the 1960s," said Stephen Monroe Tomczak, a professor of social welfare policy at Southern Connecticut State University and president of the national Social Welfare History Group.

"But whether it is, in fact, the largest is dependent on what elements of the initiative are considered ‘welfare programs.’  Some of the programs and policies proposed are commonly defined as such; others are not."

To back Sands’ claim, her campaign cited to PolitiFact a report about Build Back Better by the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank. The report uses the $4 trillion figure to back its conclusions, citing an "illustrative scenario" done by the Penn Wharton Budget Model at the University of Pennsylvania. 

But that estimate is based on all provisions in the bill remaining permanent, and it comes with a disclaimer that it is not an estimate of the Build Back Better legislation.

Official cost is $1.75 trillion, not $4 trillion

The House approved a version of the Build Back Better Act in November. No action has been taken in the Senate, as Biden continues to press for support. 

This version of the bill would spend $1.75 trillion over 10 years, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. With an estimated $658 billion in expanded tax credits for individuals and businesses, the net revenue increase would be about $1 trillion, according to the Tax Foundation.

Experts on the federal budget and social programs have criticized what they say are budget gimmicks that kept the price tag down to $1.75 trillion. For example, they note, the bill makes tax hikes permanent, but makes certain provisions such as a child tax credit, temporary.

"It is well known that both the red team and the blue team game the CBO rules that guide how they estimate what particular pieces of legislation will cost," said economist Jeffrey Smith, associate director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Institute for Research on Poverty.

Lawmakers could extend some of the temporary provisions in the future, increasing the price tag. But for now, all that’s certain is the $1.75 trillion. 

No clear definition of ‘welfare’

Build Back Better would fund programs that provide financial assistance to people. How many of those programs amount to "welfare" is debatable, given that the word has different meanings for different people. 

Welfare can refer to federal programs providing food, health care, housing and financial assistance to low-income families. Some people use the term to refer to cash payouts to people who aren’t working, while others think it includes government assistance of any type. A more precise definition refers to federal programs with means testing — using a person’s means, such as income, to determine eligibility. 

Some Build Back Better provisions target lower-income people:

  • $165 billion for what the White House called the biggest expansion of affordable health care in a decade. The provision reduces health care premiums under the Affordable Care Act and expands Medicare coverage to include hearing benefits.

  • $150 billion for affordable housing and down payment and rental assistance, which the House Financial Services Committee called the largest such investment in U.S. history.

  • $150 billion for a Medicaid program that provides affordable home health care, a provision that one Democratic senator called historic. 

Other provisions could benefit lower-income groups as well as those with greater means, and they may also include means tests: 

  • $400 billion would fund child care and preschool. Families that earn less than $300,000 annually would pay no more than 7% of their income on child care for kids under age 6.

  • $200 billion would be used for child tax credits. Individuals with an income of up to $112,500 and couples with an income of up to $150,000 would be eligible.

  • $200 billion would be for four weeks of paid family and medical leave.

While major parts of the Build Back Better bill are for helping individuals, others are not. For example, the single-largest part of the $1.75 trillion — $555 billion — would fight climate change. 

Sands’ case for largest in 60 years

Sands’ claim that Build Back Better would be the largest expansion of welfare programs in 60 years likely refers to the Great Society, President Lyndon Johnson’s domestic agenda from the mid-1960s. That effort included not only a War on Poverty, but initiatives for environmental protection, immigration, education, highways and consumer protection, among other issues.

We asked the Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector, whose report Sands relies on, about Sands’ 60 years claim. He referred us to page 24 of his report. The report states that the bill would generate an additional $167 billion in means-tested spending in its first year, and that that "would be by far the greatest increase in means-tested welfare spending in U.S. history."

The Heritage analysis defines welfare broadly, counting the refundable portion of the child credit; expansion of the earned income tax credit for low-income workers; the child care, pre-kindergarten and housing subsidies; and medical benefits for the Medicaid coverage gap, Rector told us.

Rector said that in constant dollars, the $167 billion would be more than twice as large as any prior increase in means-tested welfare spending. The next-largest one-year increase was $83 billion in 2010 in constant 2019 dollars. Rector said the 2010 increase was mainly due to a rise in enrollments in existing programs because of the Great Recession, noting that key Obamacare provisions didn’t take effect until 2014.

New means-tested spending over the first five years of Build Back Better would come to $836 billion, Rector said. In constant dollars, this would be larger than any five-year increase in such spending in U.S. history.  

Rector said those figures are based on Build Back Better being $1.75 trillion.

Another analysis, from the Washington Post, looks at the overall spending in Build Back Better as a share of the economy.

It compared Biden’s original proposal — $3.5 trillion — to the New Deal and other major social spending programs since the 1930s.

The Post found that the original Build Back Better spending would amount to 1.1% of annual gross domestic product. So taking into account that Build Back Better has been reduced to $1.75 trillion, the Post’s findings suggest that Build Back Better spending — including the climate change chunk — would amount to 0.55% of annual gross domestic product. 

That’s less than the Great Society’s 0.9% and less than the 1% spent by two Obama-era programs combined, the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a stimulus bill.

And on an annual basis, and relative to people’s incomes, Build Back Better is not as large as the 2020 CARES Act, which authorized $2.2 trillion in spending for just one year, said University of California, Davis, economics professor Peter Lindert, author of the 2021 book "Making Social Spending Work."

That law, signed by Trump, included $1,200 direct payments to most Americans, enhanced unemployment aid, loans for small business and other relief measures.

Our ruling

Sands said Biden's "$4 trillion" Build Back Better bill is "the largest expansion of welfare programs in 60 years."

The legislation would spend $1.75 trillion, not $4 trillion, over 10 years.

Experts said the legislation would be among the most significant expansions of social welfare programs since the 1960s, helping low-income as well as middle-income people. But definitions of what constitutes a welfare program vary, and there are a few different ways to make historical comparisons of legislation. The analysis cited by Sands is based on spending on programs that use means testing, and it shows the bill would be the largest such expansion. 

The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context. We rate it Half True. 

Our Sources

Google Transparency Report, Carla Sands "Shredder" ad, first served Dec. 16, 2021; last served Jan. 17, 2022

YouTube, Carla Sands "Shredder" ad, posted Dec. 4, 2021; accessed Jan. 19, 2022, Carla Sands "Shredder" ad embedded on home page, accessed Jan. 19, 2022

Email, Robert Rector, senior research fellow, domestic policy studies, Institute for Family, Community and Opportunity at the Heritage Foundation, Jan. 22, 2022

Email, Kendyl Parker, press secretary, Carla Sands, Jan. 20, 2022

Email, Stephen Monroe Tomczak, professor of social welfare policy and community organization, Southern Connecticut State University; and president of the Social Welfare History Group, Jan. 21, 2022

Email, Timothy Smeeding, Lee Rainwater distinguished professor of public affairs and economics and former director of the Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Jan. 25, 2022

Email, Jesse Rothstein, Chancellor's professor of public policy and economics, and faculty director, California Policy Lab, University of California, Berkeley, Jan. 21, 2022

House Financial Services Committee, Build Back Better Act news release, accessed Jan. 21, 2022

The White House, "The Build Back Better Framework," accessed Jan. 21, 2022

Tax Foundation, "House Build Back Better Act: Details & Analysis of Tax Provisions in the Budget Reconciliation Bill," Dec. 2, 2021

Washington Post, "Is it fair to call Biden’s $3.5 trillion plan another New Deal?", Oct. 2, 2021

Washington Post, "How the House spending bill offers the first federal paid leave program," Nov. 19, 2021

Email, Howard Gleckman, senior fellow, Urban Institute, Jan. 25, 2022

Penn Wharton Budget Model at the University of Pennsylvania, "White House Build Back Better Framework, Illustrative Permanent Scenario," Nov. 1, 2021

Heritage Foundation, "Largest Welfare Increase in U.S. History Will Boost Government Support to $76,400 per Poor Family," Nov.  8, 2021

Time, "The House Just Passed Biden’s Build Back Better Bill. Here’s What’s In It," Nov. 19, 2021

Email, Peter Lindert, distinguished professor of economics (emeritus), University of California, Davis, Jan. 26, 2022

CBS News, "What's in Democrats' $1.75 trillion social spending and climate bill?", Nov. 18, 2021

USA Today, "Fact check: Build Back Better Act includes more than $2 trillion in spending, tax cuts," Dec. 7, 2021

Interview, Michael Tanner, Cato Institute senior fellow in poverty and social welfare policy, Jan. 20, 2022

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, news release, Dec. 7, 2021

Email, Jeffrey Smith, associate director, Institute for Research on Poverty, and economics professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Jan. 20, 2022

American Enterprise Institute, "The bill is fake, not the latest CBO score," Dec. 15, 2021

Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, "Build Back Better Cost Would Double with Extensions," Nov. 15, 2021

PolitiFact, "Sen. Graham’s false claim about Build Back Better adding $3 trillion in deficits," Dec. 14, 2021

PolitiFact, "Donald Trump gives false version of Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders ‘unity’ policy on immigrants," July 17, 2020

PolitiFact, "DiPietro’s claim about welfare benefits lacks evidence," Dec. 3, 2019

PolitiFact, "Trump’s State of the Union claim about welfare, food stamp declines is off," Feb. 6, 2020

PolitiFact, "Are there more welfare recipients in the U.S. than full-time workers?", Jan. 28, 2015

Congressional Budget Office, "Budgetary Effects of Making Specified Policies in the Build Back Better Act Permanent," Dec. 10, 2021

Congressional Budget Office, "Budgetary Effects of H.R. 5376 as Passed by the House of Representatives," Dec. 8, 2021

Congressional Budget Office, "Estimated Budgetary Effects of Title XIII, Committee on Ways and Means, H.R. 5376, the Build Back Better Act, as Posted on the Website of the House Committee on Rules on November 3, 2021 (Rules Committee Print 117-18), as Amended by Yarmuth Amendment 112," Nov. 18, 2021

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