Dependency is growing, exploding actually, and it’s no accident.
Most readers will remember that one of President Barack Obama’s first reelection campaign offerings, “The Life of Julia,” an ode to an imaginary woman who lived her entire life benefiting from government dependency and other people’s money rather than individual initiative and hard work.
Americans, the administration’s case goes, should be able to enjoy housing aid, student loan forgiveness, food stamps, free birth control, government retirement plans, universal internet service, medical insurance, and that’s just for starters. If all of that doesn’t cut it, there is always welfare for those who need it—and often for those who do not. The percentage of Americans paying the tab for this utopian state of affairs is shrinking and the growing number of people supposedly “benefiting” threaten to change the dynamics of politics and government.
Last week, the Romney campaign finally took the Obama administration to task for weakening requirements in the popular bipartisan 1996 welfare reform, which allows states to waive work requirement as a condition of receiving welfare. In July, using a request by a number of governors seeking more flexibility in welfare management, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius issued a memorandum in July allowing the work requirements to be stripped.
According to a recent Rasmussen poll, even today, 83 percent of Americans surveyed support such requirements.
Realizing the political potency of the issue, the presumptive Republican nominee went on to accuse the president of fostering a “culture of dependency.” Some Democrats retorted that Romney was peddling the politics of “resentment” and others claimed that the criticism was implicitly racist. Or, in other words, Obama doesn’t have an effective answer to the charge. This is probably so because it’s true.
Government, most Americans surely agree, has a duty to provide a safety net for those temporarily struggling or permanently unable to support themselves. But when government disincentivizes self-reliance and treats dependency as a right, we’re going to have a problem.
According to data from the U.S. Census’s Survey of Income and Program Participation, almost 110 million Americans received some welfare benefit in 2011. As the Heritage Foundation points out, in 1962, 28.3 percent of federal spending was spent on dependence programs, while in 2010 that number had reached over 70 percent. Robert Rector, an expert on welfare policy at the conservative think tank, writes that a third of Americans partake in some sort of welfare program. Washington “currently runs more than 80 means-tested welfare programs. Roughly a third of the population receives benefits from one or more of these programs. (These figures do not include Social Security or Medicare.) Total welfare spending in 2011 came to $927 billion.”
Welfare cases peaked in 1995 and then declined dramatically once time limits on benefits and work-for-welfare requirements were enacted by the reform bill. The percentage of the population receiving welfare per-capita fell nearly one-third by 2007. Tinkering with that kind of success (though, it is arguable that Obama views it as success considering he opposed reform in the 1990s) provides a fortuitous opening for Republicans on a number of levels. Romney has an opportunity to open up a favorable front in the coming weeks, especially in states like Ohio, where working class voters tend to pay their own way. Thus Republicans have a persuasive case to make that dependency is on the verge of growing into something dangerous. No, the Obama Administration wasn’t alone in creating the environment for the boom, but it has excelled at fostering it.
Take the most obvious dependency program: food stamps. The farm bill changed the name of food stamps to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. One in seven Americans use them. And even that isn’t enough for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which recently spent around $3 million on a series of ads imploring people to find out if they too were eligible—rather than spending taxpayer money educating people about the many ways in which they can wean themselves off handouts.
The fungibility of food stamps—everyone buys food, after all, so the money saved can be spent on anything—makes it tantamount to sending out cash. A lot of cash. Enrollment has risen from 17.3 million in 2001 to 46.2 million in October 2011. Spending on food stamps alone is projected to reach nearly $800 billion over the next decade. It seems unlikely that all these folks would be starving without SNAP.
The Department of Agriculture is, in essence, a welfare department of its own. Food stamps eat up around 80 percent of the “farm bill.” (Another chunk of the bill is allocated to a government-sponsored welfare program called farm subsidies—but that’s a story for another day.)
In fact, The Department of Agriculture offers a perfect example of how Washington thinks it is mommy and daddy for all Americans. Drought conditions have hurt crops across the country this summer. It’s a serious problem in many areas, no doubt. The Ag Department has now designated half of all counties in the United States—1,584 in 32 states—as primary disaster areas this growing season.
Obviously, Romney can not run on a “don’t help the farmers” platform, but he can point to an array of examples of how dependency is celebrated by the administration.
There is, of course, the massive expansion of Medicaid enacted through Obamacare, the student loans forgiveness, the administration’s plan to push the Federal Housing Finance Agency into enacting a mortgage principal reduction program which would put taxpayers on the hook for the hundreds of thousands of mortgages they did not buy.
Last week, Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University law student who became a national figure after demanding government mandate companies provide birth control for her, introduced President Obama at a campaign stop in Denver. Fluke, treated as a hero at the event, had argued in front of a congressional committee that birth control could cost her $3,000 or more during her time at law school. Republicans have an opportunity to juxtapose the Sandra Flukes of the world with women who achieve without begging for state-sponsored condoms.
Because dependency not only costs dollars, it changes the political dynamic in an unhealthy way. In 1962, the first year measured in the Index of Dependence on Government, the percentage of people who did not pay federal income taxes–and were not claimed as a dependent by someone else who did pay federal income taxes–was around 24 percent. In 1969, it was 12 percent. In 2000, 34 percent. In 2009, nearly 50 percent.
No, this doesn’t mean that all citizens who don’t pay federal income tax are dependents on the state. Some are at the end of their careers, others are starting out their lives, some are temporarily struggling and others have been thrust into hardships beyond their control. Yet, as fewer people have a vested interest in the cost of government, as the base of taxpayers shrinks and the number of welfare recipients explodes, a day will come when a majority of Americans may value reliance on government over freedom from it.