The “Moochers Against Welfare”

Over the years I’ve had many a discussion with my more conservative friends about welfare in America. While most have no problem labeling food stamps and WIC as welfare, few seem aware that a goodly part of their income is reliant on one or more government program. Forty-percent or more of Americans receiving Medicare, Social Security or unemployment don’t realize they are participating in a government program. Many farmers “farm for a check” but don’t concede they are often being kept in business by government largess. Truck drivers, manufacturers, wholesale distribution companies, and countless others don’t realize their businesses rely on a Federal highway program that is only in part paid for by fuel taxes. Those whose livelihoods depend on aviation are constantly reliant on government programs to build and maintain airports, provide pre and in-flight security, coordinate air traffic on and above the ground, inspect the safety of aircraft, investigate aviation accidents, etc.  Even greater numbers aren’t aware that things such as home mortgage tax exemptions, often used to help build government subsidized homes, and student loans often helping pay tuition to state supported colleges are government programs. The point is, almost all Americans depend on government programs for so many things that we either don’t want to admit or are unaware of. Nobel economist, Paul Krugman, recently wrote a column for the New York Times pointing out the disconnect between what people want to think and what the reality is. Here’s the text of Krugman’s piece:

First, Atlas shrugged. Then he scratched his head in puzzlement.

Modern Republicans are very, very conservative; you might even (if you were Mitt Romney) say, severely conservative. Political scientists who use congressional votes to measure such things find that the current GOP majority is the most conservative since 1879, which is as far back as their estimates go.

And what these severe conservatives hate, above all, is reliance on government programs. Rick Santorum declares that President Barack Obama is getting America hooked on “the narcotic of dependency.” Romney warns that government programs “foster passivity and sloth.”

Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, requires that staff members read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, in which heroic capitalists struggle against the “moochers” trying to steal their totally deserved wealth, a struggle the heroes win by withdrawing their productive effort and giving interminable speeches.

Many readers of The Times were, therefore, surprised to learn, from an excellent article published last weekend, that the regions of America most hooked on Santorum’s narcotic — the regions in which government programs account for the largest share of personal income — are precisely the regions electing those severe conservatives. Wasn’t Red America supposed to be the land of traditional values, where people don’t eat Thai food and don’t rely on handouts?

The article made its case with maps showing the distribution of dependency, but you get the same story from a more formal comparison. Aaron Carroll of Indiana University tells us that in 2010, residents of the 10 states Gallup ranks as “most conservative” received 21.2 percent of their income in government transfers, while the number for the 10 most liberal states was only 17.1 percent.

Now, there’s no mystery about red-state reliance on government programs. These states are relatively poor, which means both that people have fewer sources of income other than safety-net programs and that more of them qualify for “means-tested” programs such as Medicaid.

By the way, the same logic explains why there has been a jump in dependency since 2008. Contrary to what Santorum and Romney suggest, Obama has not radically expanded the safety net. Rather, the dire state of the economy has reduced incomes and made more people eligible for benefits, especially unemployment benefits. Basically, the safety net is the same, but more people are falling into it. 

Paul Krugman, New York Times, February 17, 2012. 

The out, or excuse, many use it that they “paid into the program” so it isn’t welfare. Well, in most instances the benefits realized end up being far greater than what was paid in. The typical recipient of Social Security quickly gets back every cent they ever paid in and when that point is reached, they are on the government dole just as someone who may have never paid in. It is also true that the typical recipient of food stamps is a person who had been working, paying taxes, and for whatever reason became in need of and eligible for this government program.

Another irony worth noting is that the most conservative among us are the elderly. It is a socioeconomic reality that as people age they become more conservative. It is also a reality that the elderly are among the most dependent upon government programs. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are the major consumers of the federal budget and the programs almost all older Americans couldn’t live without.

A frequent feature of Tea Party rallies in the past couple of years has been the old dude railing against the federal government while carrying a sign exclaiming, “Keep your hands off my Social Security” or, “Say no to Obamacare but don’t touch my Medicare.” These are the “moochers against welfare” of which Krugman speaks.

2 thoughts on “The “Moochers Against Welfare””

  1. This “problem” runs a lot deeper than the article and your comments suggest. Over the years, from a money standpoint, government and industry have become so entangled that they really don’t exist independently any more. This is the big mistake the “government shrinkers” make; believing that all these entities are free-standing. The most obvious example is what happens to state governments when their federal subsidies are cut. While the feds can fiddle with deficit spending, most (if not all) states are required to balance their budgets (remember that the next time a political candidate brags about balancing budgets in his/her state, and ask yourself what alternative they had) so that a cut in revenues from any source causes immediate problems at the state level. If federal taxes go down, state taxes must inevitably go up. The only alternative is truly draconian cutting; which would be difficult enough if it were done with the best of intentions, but when performed by politicians with hidden agendas, truly threatens the fabric of American society as we know it.

    Similarly, big business has incorporated federal and state money into their balance sheet to the point where their viability is threatened by any change in the status quo. Back in my working days, the mid 1980’s, I remember hearing that 1 in 7 workers got their pay from government sources. I was one of them; working for a high-tech materials company that subsisted on defense contracts. The interest of our funding agencies went elsewhere, and the company simply went away. That situation is probably more aggravated today, in that there’s been another 25 years for everyone to figure out how to better game the system. This interdependence is something a Paul Krugman should investigate further: My feeling is that if federal funding were completely terminated today, our entire economy would be shredded within a week.

    1. You’re correct, Ed. Just look at one aspect of the economy, the military, and all the jobs that are dependent on its existence and its spending levels. From the civilian who sweeps floors in the PX store to a PhD working for Boeing developing the next generation of cruise missile. Millions of civilian jobs depend the governments policies regarding military spending.

      And, speaking of military spending, when was the last time you heard a politician with a defense contractor or a military base in their home locale fighting to reduce military spending?

      Whatever spending policies and cuts are made by the federal government must be done incrementally rather than cold turkey. Otherwise, as you stated the economy would be “shredded.”

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