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Thursday, October 20, 2016

The conservative narrative of the “entitlement society” ignores the fact that most Americans are both givers and takers.

As David Brooks points out, Mitt Romney’s remarks describing 47 percent of the population as, in effect, moochers who would vote for Obama because they got government benefits were not “off the cuff,” as he described them today. There is a carefully developed theory behind his words, which has seen expression in previous Romney speeches, such as one last December in which he described Obama’s vision as an “entitlement society” in which “everyone receives the same rewards,” but in which “we’ll all be poor.”

The lab where this theory that we’re headed toward a radical egalitarian state is being developed is the American Enterprise Institute, the oldest of the conservative think tanks and one that, much like Romney, has forsaken the traditional business-minded conservatism of, say, the first President Bush, for hard conservatism in which everything is a grand showdown of incompatible worldviews. The two recent books by the current AEI president, Arthur Brooks (The Battle and The Road to Freedom) embody this apocalyptic approach, as does a recent essay-with-graphs by longtime AEI scholar and accomplished demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, called “A Nation of Takers.”

AEI invited me to participate on a panel with Eberstadt a few months ago, when the essay was just a series of unpublished PowerPoint slides. I welcomed the invitation, but had to cancel due to a conflict. However, I wrote up notes at the time, and what follows is adapted from those notes.

“A Nation of Takers” shows in some detail the expansion of government benefits since the 1960s and the share of the population they reach. The data is not wrong, but it’s selective, and the story that Eberstadt has wrapped around them – that receipt of benefits makes people “dependents,” that people are becoming “chiselers,” choosing to maximize benefits, that the expansion of entitlements was a political effort by the left that slowly overcame “resistance” from real Americans — is highly tendentious. The reality is that people who receive benefits are no more or less “dependent” than corporations that get tax breaks or legal protections, that the expanding costs of major entitlements are about rising health care costs and, to a lesser extent, the demographics of an aging nation rather than more people becoming “takers,” and that the expansion of some benefits to the lower rungs of the middle class was a bipartisan project in which conservatives should take pride.

There is a story implied in the very word, “takers,” which is reminiscent of former Senator Phil Gramm’s oft-repeated metaphor of a wagon: there are “people riding in the wagon,” he would say, and “people pulling the wagon,” and the people riding need to get out and pull. But while you can’t pull a wagon and ride in it at the same time, you can certainly be a taker and a giver at the same time, or at different times in life. For example, Eberstadt’s charts show that the government benefit that grew fastest in recent years, not surprisingly in a recession, is Unemployment Insurance. Everyone who receives benefits from Unemployment Insurance, without exception, has worked – usually full-time and steadily for at least a year – and paid into the system through their employers. And they will (they desperately hope) work again and pay even more. Some people might end up receiving more, over their long working lives, while others might pay in while having the good fortune never to be unemployed. But that’s the nature of insurance. Most of us, other than the permanently disabled, are givers and takers to government, because that’s what it is to be part of a community or a nation.

A look at the individual programs behind all of these charts indicates that the big story is the extension of the social safety net from the very, very poor to the lower rungs of the working poor, particularly through expansion of Medicaid and tax credits for working families. With bipartisan support, these innovations have fundamentally changed the social safety net that both conservatives like Charles Murray and Lawrence Mead and liberals like David Ellwood described in different ways two decades ago: a system in which it really did make more sense for poor parents not to work than to give up the linked package of benefits that went with non-work, including welfare, Medicaid, and food stamps. Meager as those benefits were, they were often economically preferable to a minimum-wage job without health care or other assistance, and with the added costs of child care.

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Copyright 2012 The National Memo
  • tokoloshi27

    Schmitt, in my opinion is spinning this like a top. First and more accurately than “moocher”, “chiseler”, “taker” and all the other pejoratives that he uses to contextualize the “story” obscure the fundamental accuracy of the actual word Romney used – and apologized for using – “victim”.

    Then he goes on to use this top like a gyroscope, he punches in his think-tank’s language and statistics from left leaning sources that call “tax incentives” and “credits” and this perpendicular logic delivers this as “social programs”. Something like the GI Bill is not entitlement; this is a program you sign up for (post Vietnam era GI Bill) in boot camp and the Government, as your employer, matches funds to build up an account that can only be used for higher educational studies. A number of other large employers have similar programs to encourage career development – are they really social programs too?

    Insurance; he mentions unemployment insurance as insurance and it is; however since it is administered by government agencies, this makes it a social program – I disagree. The most telling lines on the Cornell table he includes in the article are the last three lines. At 27.4% (all three) we have welfare, subsidized housing and food stamps. This is what most people think of or would characterize as the “takers” but what he doesn’t even venture into the neighborhood of, and what most thinking people likely would indicate is the “problem”; how folks get off those programs. There clearly are a significant number of the 27.4% for whom there is no desire for “betterment” for a number of reasons – one of them being that they have been educated by the “system” to view themselves as “victims” and are, as a result, entitled to the “wagon ride”. This means that for those people the safety net has become a straitjacket and we have only ourselves (collectively) to blame for this. We have built this handicap into our own system through inadequate education as well as outright pandering from the left and these peoples’ “advocates”. For myself I hold the “advocates” and their paternalistic, tribal attitudes towards misinformation as the worst abusers of this system.

    • Interesting reply. However, within the welfare program, as noted, the system has been adapted to assist the movement out of the program with requirements for work, training etc. Living in Seattle, I don’t know how our buildings would be cleaned, our fast food served, even our children educated without the cities support of low income housing. Even my kids have a hard if not impossible task of owning a home in the city. I guess that adds to our commuter problems. As far as foods stamps, a good percentage goes to feed children as well as the working poor. It is hard to do much else when you are hungry. And at the same time, this program is also a method to help support farmers by subsidizing crops. I for one can not personally justify having anyone in the United States ever go hungry and yet people want to limit this program. You have to be in dire straits to qualify if you ask me and the last thing I want you to worry about is someone starving to death in my neighborhood. And as for me, I have never met anyone on welfare, on food stamps, or in public housing who wouldn’t in a moment exchange their life for one with a good high paying job, that means their children don’t go to bed cold and hungry.

      • tokoloshi27

        Tired, thanks for your perspective. living in New Orleans we saw something kinda different after Katrina a few years ago. The town was completely evacuated for at least 60 days (just enough for the mold & rot to set in).

        The people that were publicly evacuated from the Superdome and Convention Center went either to Houston, Dallas or Atlanta (primarily). Those cities found that their crime rates were significantly increased during this period. (New Orleans had three whole months without a murder.) The folks that were evacuated to Des Moines and (of all places) Boise had a whole different world revealed to them; strangers walked up to them and offered them jobs and treated them like regular folks. Those that took the jobs said later that they never wanted to go back to New Orleans. Of those that went to Houston; many came back eventually to NOLA and immediately started protesting all the ‘improvements’ that the federal largesse had undertaken. Projects which had been condemned and were being dismantled, new housing was being built; integrated with other income housing – and those folks hated it. Those who hadn’t experienced the self-respect that comes from being treated like everyone else protested even those incremental steps out of the nanny-womb. City Hall was a madhouse for weeks with “activists” instigating and agitating the confused masses.

        • I agree that there is a fine line. Sometimes people just need to make it through the crisis. Sometimes it is harder. I know that we have to have the support of the churches, the community, companies and that it may take this and the government to make it all work. As long as people understand, we do need government and it is the governments job to step in when the private sector can’t handle the load.

    • Sand_Cat

      Sorry, but your spin is no better than his, assuming your accusation is correct. I do appreciate the attempt to treat this with some seriousness and apparently scrupulous attempt to avoid presenting your opinions as facts.

      And, to be honest, many of the people in government programs or insurance are – in my opinion – victims of the mismanagement of the economy by politicians, such as the negligence of those regulating the people making “sub-prime” loans which caused so many people to be dependent on government benefits, and the apparent reluctance of the current administration to find and prosecute the culprits and their half-assed attempt to impose regulations to prevent future activities of the same type.

      And yes, given the prevailing political and racial climate in Houston, Dallas, and Atlanta, and – I’m guessing here – the likely fact that those given better opportunities by being sent elsewhere were primarily of a certain skin tone and higher economic class (the two are certainly not coincidental), it isn’t terribly surprising that there was acceptance and welcoming in one place and “an icrease in the crime rate” in the other. The acceptance and condoning of racial prejudice and discrimination by the Bush administration and most other Republican regimes has not helped. Again, that is my opinion, but then you provided no confirmation of your assertions below.

      Certainly many of those who have for generations lived in hopelessness largely the result of flagrant discimination have become dependent on the government, and are unlikely to get out of the trap without the help to which determined – even savage -opposition from the more extreme of those of what I take to be your political inclinations can be taken as a given.

      • tokoloshi27

        Sand, while not trying to convince you of something you seem extremely reluctant to consider; the supporting external context is that the city and LA state both had democratic leadership. You may remember the names Governor Blanco and Mayor C. Ray Nagin.

        Houston initially received the refugees in a welcoming manner; it was the perceived ingratitude from the refugess – the expectation that others would drop everything to succor them because everything was someone else’s fault. If one person was offered something, many that heard of the donation/gift went to demand the same of the givers. That is the unpleasant side of victimhood – the “I’m just as pitiful as the next man” mentality – if your expectation is an equality of government benefits, then you are being ‘cheated’ if you don’t get as much. Real world and the simple crap-shoot of life is undiscovered territory if your whole world experience is cradle to grave nanny-state. There’s no JFK “ask not…” culture to build from anymore.

        The refugees that had the misfortune to be carried en mass to the neighboring major metropolitan areas never did get out of their cocoon and experience what this great country can be like. You are correct in construing that government, in attempting to place refugees in conditions that were more familiar, actually did them this dis-service. But I don’t think there was any selection (skin tone or otherwise) process at work though, these were federally chartered buses that were sent by the busload hither and yon. A great deal of effort was later taken to get folks back into contact with each other, at the time it was more a matter of getting folks out of a pestilential situation as quickly as possible.

        Last comment – on the spin – my comment was on the author’s use of every word but the one Romney actually used. He’s got the first paragraphs filled with his projected language and that of other pundits…

  • Don Bitz

    “Even 45 percent of Social Security recipients said they had never used a government program, which may reflect the belief that they are receiving benefits they’ve paid for.” If I am at an income level to have $3,974 withheld from my payroll checks this year including SS and Medicare, but I am able to file my return and get a $4600 refund check because of earned-income child-tax credits (actual numbers on an employee from my 2011 payroll report) PLUS full Medicaid benefits for myself and 4 dependents, did I contribute anything to my Social Security? Laughable.

    Simple mathmatics: [payments] – [refund] =[contribution]