The American social safety net is back in the news, and not just because Mitt Romney acknowledged, "I'm not concerned about the very poor." This week, the libertarian Mercatus Center at George Mason University revealed that a third of Americans now receive Medicaid, food stamps or other means-based government assistance, a number that climbs to 148 million when Social Security, Medicare and unemployment benefits are factored in. The next day, the conservative Heritage Foundation fretted that its "Index of Dependence on Government" rose 8.1 percent last year. Then on Sunday, the New York Times detailed that the so-called safety net now delivers most its benefits to middle class Americans, including many who denounce the very government programs which now sustain them.
But while the torrent of new reports provides fodder for partisans of all stripes (myself included), the picture of the frayed U.S. safety net is a complex one. What conservatives routinely decry as government largesse for the undeserving poor is a hodge-podge of programs which increasingly support the middle class and, above all, the elderly.
Here, then, are five things I found caught in the safety net.
1. Universal Programs vs. Means-Tested Benefits
Eager to reinforce their narrative, conservatives tend to play fast and loose with what's actually in the safety net. As this Politico summary of the Heritage Foundation 2012 government dependency index shows, safety net critics intentionally conflate universal programs like Social Security and Medicare with means-tested aide like food stamps, housing assistance and welfare payments:
Since the 2008 index, the American people's dependence on government has grown a whopping 23 percent.
One in five Americans -- or slightly more than 67 million -- now relies on federal assistance...Overall, about 70 percent of the federal government's budget is directed to individual assistance programs. And nearly half of the population, or 49.5 percent, don't pay any federal income taxes, according to the survey.
Of course, virtually all working Americans pay Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes; programs whose growth accounts for most of the expansion of federal domestic spending. Since 1965, Social Security and Medicare have helped reduce poverty among the elderly by two-thirds. (Just as important, bipartisan support for the Earned Income Tax Credit and other tax credits have trimmed the numbers of working Americans who owe Uncle Sam each year.) That's why it was so refreshing to see at least one right-wing blogger react to Sunday's New York Times piece by complaining, "Wait - Medicare is now a "safety net" program? I thought that, like Social Security, it was an earned benefit - we all paid our taxes, and we are all eligible."
2. Complain and Ye Shall Receive
To be sure, the conservative commentariat is none too happy to see The New York Times once again highlight the hypocrisy of government spending critics happily (or often, unknowingly) receiving payments from Washington. For example, there's the case of Ki Gulbranson, a Minnesotan who earns $39,000 a year and, The Times claims, "wants you to know that he does not need any help from the federal government":
He says that too many Americans lean on taxpayers rather than living within their means. He supports politicians who promise to cut government spending. In 2010, he printed T-shirts for the Tea Party campaign of a neighbor, Chip Cravaack, who ousted this region's long-serving Democratic congressman.
Yet this year, as in each of the past three years, Mr. Gulbranson, 57, is counting on a payment of several thousand dollars from the federal government, a subsidy for working families called the earned-income tax credit. He has signed up his three school-age children to eat free breakfast and lunch at federal expense. And Medicare paid for his mother, 88, to have hip surgery twice.
Gulbranson has plenty of company within the ranks of the Tea Party. 2009 data from Public Policy Polling revealed that while 39 percent of all Americans responded that the government should "stay out of Medicare," 59 percent of self-identified conservatives and 62 percent of McCain voters hold that oxymoronic view. As The New York Times reported on its joint survey with CBS of Tea Party members in April 2010, "Despite their push for smaller government, they think that Social Security and Medicare are worth the cost to taxpayers." 62-year-old Tea Party supporter Jodine White acknowledged to The Times what her desire to slash government spending would produce:
"That's a conundrum, isn't it? I don't know what to say. Maybe I don't want smaller government. I guess I want smaller government and my Social Security." She added, "I didn't look at it from the perspective of losing things I need. I think I've changed my mind."
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