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Government Assistance: A Safety Net or a Hammock?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

A short while back I wrote of some revealing statistics that invite the question, are we becoming “A Nation of Dependents” on government benefits of one kind or another?  Now the Heritage Foundation has published their 2012 Index of Dependence on Government that raises even more questions.  According to the newly released report, the average amount of federal benefits received by individuals now exceeds the average disposable personal income level in the nation, suggesting it is more profitable for many to rely on government assistance than to work.  One in five Americans – 67.3 million – get some type of federal assistance, while half of the population pays no federal income tax.   A summary of the findings follows:

  • One in five Americans—the highest in the nation’s history—relies on the federal government for everything from housing, health care, and food stamps to college tuition and retirement assistance. That’s more than 67.3 million Americans who receive subsidies from Washington.
  • Government dependency jumped 8.1 percent in the past year, with the most assistance going toward housing, health and welfare, and retirement.
  • The federal government spent more taxpayer dollars than ever before in 2011 to subsidize Americans. The average individual who relies on Washington could receive benefits valued at $32,748, more than the nation’s average disposable personal income ($32,446).
  • At the same time, nearly half of the U.S. population (49.5 percent) does not pay any federal income taxes.
  • In the next 25 years, more than 77 million baby boomers will retire. They will begin collecting checks from Social Security, drawing benefits from Medicare, and relying on Medicaid for long-term care.
  • As of now, 70 percent of the federal government’s budget goes to individual assistance programs, up dramatically in just the past few years. However, research shows that private, community, and charitable aid helps individuals rise from their difficulties with better success than federal government handouts. Plus, local and private aid is often more effectively distributed.

In his State of the Union speech, Barack Obama said income inequality was “the defining issue of our time.”   During his 2008 campaign, Obama repeatedly said “spreading the wealth” of the nation around a priority of his administration.  The Heritage report would suggest he’s being remarkably successful, but what kind of nation – what kind of people – does it make us? 

In an op-ed on the subject,  Rep. Allen West (R-FL) who grew up in inner-city Atlanta acknowledges that there is a time and place for a government “social safety net” to assist the very poor along with the good work done by churches, charities,  private companies, and neighbors.  However, “that ‘net’ should never turn into a ‘hammock’ – and that is what this President and his policies are allowing,”  West says.

My parents grew up during the Great Depression.  Dad only went to school through 8th grade; Mom through the 9th.   They left school to work on their own family’s farm to help survive the tough times.  Their entire married life they worked as farmers and many years it was a struggle to stay afloat.  Extended drought years nearly caused them to lose everything a couple of times.  When times were the most difficult, they just worked harder, longer, and smarter.  I never – ever – remember them with their hand out to government or anyone else. 

That “personal responsibility” defined them and the “Greatest Generation” of which they were members.  From the beginning of our nation, the same quality has always been part of our soul, seemingly embedded in our DNA to be passed along to successive generations.  But, has something changed?

Rather obviously, the continued increase of spending by government on ever more social programs is financially unsustainable.  The findings of the new Heritage study and many more similar reports cause Congressman West and many like him to wonder if something dramatic and maybe irreversible is happening as America races down the same path that has created financial havoc in so many European nations.    The problem with this socialist kind of government redistribution and dependency is, “Sooner or later, you run out of other people’s money,” as Margaret Thatcher warned.

Is America on the brink?  Allen West sounded the alarm.  “Our democratic government is at risk when there are more Americans who are wedded to the federal government – either by subsistence or employment check – than federal taxpayers to pay for the rampant spending.”

Who are we as individuals; as a people? Can America survive?  Will we change course, or continue down a path of fiscal calamity?  Those are real questions; very serious questions, that Americans will have to address in the Presidential election of 2012.  

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