June 10, 2011
A Nation of Government DependentsBy Jerry Shenk
Most of us are in some way dependent upon the central government. It's only ignorance of our dependency that permits many to deny it.
American government, at least as older citizens know it, is nearly extinct. Politicians are killing it by encouraging governmental profligacy and dysfunction at the federal and state levels and in many local jurisdictions as well. But they are doing so with a complicit citizenry.
It took several generations, but, in order to win and hold office, America's political class has encouraged unrealistic expectations among citizens by promising more than government can consistently and sustainably deliver.
Americans are witnessing the failure of progressive governance in the United States. Many Americans have already been victimized. Unless America changes course quickly we will all be victims.
We are living in an era when unsustainable entitlements are considered mandatory expenditures, and annual "discretionary" government expenditures, much of them on questionable programs never envisioned by America's founders, are relentlessly compounded by ballooning baselines.
Politicians have created a permanent underclass in America accustomed to receiving their "livelihoods" from one or more government programs. But the problem of inflated expectations is far larger and more complex than entitlements and public welfare.
The numbers are staggering. According to a Census Bureau report for the first quarter of 2009, of a little more than 300 million Americans, nearly 139 million -- or 46.2% of us -- were receiving benefits from one or more federal programs.
The largest programs are familiar ones: Social Security (46,509,000), Medicaid (70,818,000), Medicare (42,566,000) and the Food Stamp program (36,096,000).
Smaller, less familiar programs such as the Railroad Retirement Program, veterans compensation, unemployment compensation, workers compensation, housing subsidies, Federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Women's, Infants and Children benefits (WIC) and other means-tested assistance programs covered more than 60 million individuals, many redundantly.
There are far more recipients of food stamps today than there were two years ago, and Baby Boomers are just beginning to swell the rolls of Social Security and Medicare.
But some of the large groups receiving government benefits aren't included in the Census Bureau report. The Bureau's list does not include tax breaks for industries, businesses, and individuals. And it overlooks things like taxpayer subsidies for farmers, ethanol refiners, and wind energy, among other politically favored recipients. Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, and recipients of other "cultural" expenditures employ people who thereby benefit from taxpayer-funded government handouts. Year 2009 recipients of government benefits included those who took advantage of the horrendously wasteful "Cash for Clunkers" program, the energy-efficient windows replacement scheme in the failed Stimulus program, and other governmental boondoggles. Some business tax breaks, such as the preferential tax status of employer-provided health insurance, filter down to individuals. Of the roughly fifty percent of Americans who pay federal income taxes, about one-quarter itemize the home mortgage interest deduction on their tax returns.
There are many other examples too numerous -- or obscure -- to mention here.
The United State tax code exceeds seventy thousand pages. Many thousands of deals for special interests and constituencies are written into it. Ironically, in order to take advantage of available tax breaks, individuals and businesses spend unimaginable amounts of time and money to properly prepare their returns.
Nonetheless, adding tax break recipients, including employees of companies receiving breaks and subsidies, to the numbers receiving government cash payouts and direct benefits, the number of those receiving government benefits likely exceeds three-quarters of Americans -- more than 225 million, possibly many more!
Government dependents are increasing in total numbers and as a percentage of Americans.
Politicians have encouraged dependency on government to the point that correcting America's problems will require general sacrifice. The size and scope of government makes self-correction impossible. The fixes must be legislated.
Government needs a course correction. Deficits are far too large. The national debt is unsustainable. Entitlements and irrational overspending are destroying the futures of our kids and grandkids. The central government is too large, too unwieldy, too inefficient, too corrupt -- and largely unaccountable. Worse, most of our politicians lack the will to make necessary changes.
To be fair, aside from loyalties to generous special interests, politicians do mirror the mood of their constituencies. Though there is a notion that Americans favor tax reform or reducing the deficit and national debt, so far, few Americans appear willing to give up the benefits, tax breaks and subsidies they enjoy. Most Americans say they favor change, but, as a practical matter, desire it only at the expense of others.
If government fails, those who will be hurt the most are the people progressives tell us must be protected. The consequences of failure will be felt most profoundly by the neediest among us. When credible government assets are exhausted, it's over for the poor. If America defaults, the citizens who will suffer most are those who have been encouraged or allowed themselves to become dependent upon government.
The same progressives who promote entitlement programs for "the children," "seniors" and "the poorest among us" have abdicated their responsibility to preserve the programs on which those classes have become dependent. In answer to the crisis they created, progressives in Washington cynically demagogue any proposal to return America to fiscal sanity and to sustainably renew entrenched entitlement programs and a healthier, more prosperous nation. Predictably, they do so for perceived political advantage, the same motive driving creation of benefit programs.
But, progressives aside, will Americans who claim to support fiscal reform be willing to give up their own benefits?
Today, the central government threatens our futures. In eighteen months or so we will know the answer to a critical question: Can the United States be restored, or will America fail?
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