“Even Critics of Safety Net Increasingly Depend on It,” read a recent New York Times headline, capturing in a sentence the uncertain and contradictory sentiment of millions of middle class Americans who say they want the government out of their lives, but admit they count on Social Security, Medicare, and other benefits to stay afloat. Chisago, Minnesota—the archetypal heartland county in which much of the events in the article take place—is illustrative: a former Democratic stronghold, now with a declining middle class and a decidedly conservative outlook, whose residents struggle to reconcile their resentment with reliance on entitlement programs.
The remaining Republican presidential candidates have seized upon that resentment to construct an alternative narrative to the one President Obama favors. While the administration talks about helping hard-working Americans to get back on their feet after the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, Mitt Romney has warned that the United States is becoming an “Entitlement Society,” with dependence on government fostering “passivity and sloth.” Rick Santorum talks of social insurance “systematically destroying the work ethic.” And Newt Gingrich has called Mr. Obama a “food-stamp president,” suggesting that “the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.”
But this racially charged narrative—able-bodied young people collecting government benefits instead of finding honest work—couldn’t be farther from the truth. According to a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, more than 90 percent of government benefits went to the elderly, the seriously disabled, and members of working households in 2010. The majority of the remaining 9 percent went to medical care, unemployment insurance (which requires previous work experience), Social Security survivor benefits (for children and spouses of deceased workers), and early Social Security benefits. The CBPP analysis also finds that, among entitlement programs that target only low-income households, five out of every six dollars were spent on the elderly or disabled (probably a low estimate, as the data comes from 2010, when the national unemployment rate averaged a historic 9.6 percent).
The CBPP data should also quash the Republican implication that the poor benefit from entitlement programs at the expense of the middle class. In fact, the graph below shows that the middle class receives a proportionate share of benefits, while only the top 20 percent of the population receives less. Compare that to the distribution of tax credits, write-offs, and deductions that are available to the rich: the top fifth of the population received 66 percent of the $1.1 trillion “tax entitlements” in 2010, compared to just 2.8 percent for the poorest fifth.
Unfortunately, the deterioration of the middle class has made many Americans susceptible to the politics of resentment that drive Republican misperceptions. In Chisago County, per capita income has fallen 13 percent in the past decade; nationally, median income remains little changed in over thirty years. But instead of questioning the vast upward redistribution of wealth to the top 1 percent, or why the 400 richest Americans—who control as much wealth as 150 million people—pay an average tax rate of just 18 percent, many of Minnesotans quoted in the Times article speak stoically of suffering to reduce the national debt and their own reliance on government:
“How do you tell someone that you deserve to have heart surgery and you can’t?” Mr. Gulbranson said.
“You have to help and have compassion as a people, because otherwise you have no society, but financially you can’t destroy yourself. And that is what we’re doing.”
He paused again, unable to resolve the dilemma.