The “Dependent” Ones

On the basis of Mitt Romney’s comments on the 47%, it seems obvious that he believes being “dependent on government” in any form is a condition worse than sin. His view that almost half of us fit into that category conforms with a moralistic narrative on the right that sees the world split between the productive and the unproductive, the givers and the takers. But what is clear in the eyes of Romney and the Republican faithful is almost by definition ambiguous or contradictory to the rest of us. Indeed, Romney’s specific assertion about dependency is vulnerable to two cogent criticisms: it is either an outlandish understatement or a crude exaggeration.

Let’s start by viewing it as an outlandish understatement. To say that 47% of us are dependent on government and 53% aren’t ignores the fact that 100% of us “depend” on government in fundamental ways. We are referring not just to Social Security and Medicare, but to programs that guarantee the safety of our food, air, and water, ensure the trustworthiness of our marketplace, maintain our transportation systems, offer an abbreviated safety net, and provide national security. We all rely on government for these essential functions, and that’s a good thing. Owing to the federal government’s ability to  provide uniform oversight and take advantage of economies of scale, it is uniquely qualified to handle these challenging tasks (and, by the way, fulfill its mandate to “promote the common welfare,” as stated in the Constitution’s preamble).

Can it be said, however, that the disadvantaged are proportionately more dependent on government than the rest of us? In a perceptual sense perhaps yes, but overall no. According to the non-profit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, it is true that the poor, as a percentage of the population, receive more than their share of so-called “entitlement” dollars (32% of benefits go to the bottom 20% of the population). The middle class receives approximately its proportional share (58% go to the middle 60% of the population), and the highest income group, less than its share (10% go to the top 20% of the population). This ostensibly represents a shift of resources to the low income from the high income group. But here is the clincher: higher income Americans are rewarded for their “sacrifice” by receiving the lion’s share of what Alan Greenspan calls “tax entitlements.” These are loopholes in the tax code aimed at particular interest groups and especially wealthy investors. A full 66% of  “tax entitlements” go the top 20% of the population. Bottom line: it is a stretch to say that lower income Americans are appreciably more “dependent” on government than anybody else, if we measure dependency by government benefits received.

But let’s assume that Mr. Romney has in mind a more shaded meaning for the word “dependent.” Perhaps he is thinking of “dependent” in the sense of encouraging “passivity and sloth” and enabling able-bodied people to shirk their responsibilities.  If we view his 47% statement in this light, however, it would seem to take the form of a crude exaggeration.  Conservatives never make a broad connection between government services and sloth. The reason is, they can’t. Romney’s basic claim is based on a favorite factoid of the right, namely, that approximately 47% of households do not pay federal income tax (technically true), and hence are non-contributing encumbrances on the system. But in fact, most of the 47% are working families who do pay substantial payroll taxes (Social Security and Medicare taxes) , as various commentators have pointed out.  Often their payroll taxes alone are proportionately in excess of what the wealthy pay in taxes. Meanwhile, those who pay neither payroll nor income taxes–about 18%–are hardly the drifters and ne’er-do-wells that Romneyites would have us believe. About half of them are elderly citizens who have retired after years of employment, and many of the remaining 9% are disabled or temporarily unemployed after being laid off.

It is true that America’s poorer citizens, unable to survive on a ludicrously low minimum wage, often receive government assistance in the form of food stamps, housing supplements, and the like. Our wage system, not sloth or the unwillingness to work, encourages this sad state of affairs. However, the actual proportion of non-working people receiving “welfare,” as it is commonly defined, is relatively small. These are poor families with dependent children covered by the TANF program (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families), partially administered by the states. According to the Department of Health, families receiving more than 50% of their income under this program constitute 1.7% of the population, not the bloated figures suggested by conservative bloggers and think tanks. And even this 1.7% receive welfare assistance for a limited time period only and have to satisfy certain training or work-related requirements. While unwillingness to work may exist on the margins, it is more a political fiction of tea partiers than a demonstrable problem.

The evils of government “dependency” will always be a rallying cry of the right because it rests on the dogma that government can never be a force for good, and thus never something one should rely on.  On this assumption, one could even construct an argument that the more useful and popular a government program is, the more insidious it should be considered because a grateful citizenry relies on it. Government is bad not because it doesn’t work, but because it does. Unfortunately, this is the sort of bizarre argument that today’s  Republican governing philosophy is based on.

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