Leaning hard on government

Posted: Jun 24, 2005 12:00 AM

Believe me, I don?t want to ruin anybody?s fun preparing for Independence Day celebrations.

Like so many of you, I?ll be out there when July 4 rolls around enjoying family, food and fireworks and toasting everything that makes America great. But I can?t help raising an important question -- one that ought to concern everyone who cares about our country.

Is America, the country that produced the Declaration of Independence, becoming a nation of dependents?

Specifically, are we now a nation of people tethered to government, a society that has abandoned a proud and grand tradition of self-reliance and rugged individualism?

I want to believe the answer is no, but the facts suggest otherwise. A study from The Heritage Foundation called ?The 2005 Index of Dependency? shows that Americans today rely more heavily than ever on government for the money that pays for their education, health care and housing, among other things.

The Index measures the growth rate of federal government services and programs that displace private or community-based services and programs that meet the same needs. It shows that our dependency on government has more than doubled over the last 25 years, rising by 112 percent since 1980. The Index score was 100 that year. By 2004, it had risen to 212.

Take low-cost housing. Before World War II, limited housing assistance was the province of many private, community-based organizations -- churches and local charities, for example. But in the post-war years, that changed as federal and state governments stepped in to provide low-cost housing. Today, the Index notes, nearly all housing assistance comes from government.

The same is true of health care. No longer is health care and health insurance obtained through a local social club or church, as many Americans once did. Today, care comes from public programs such as Medicaid or Medicare. And those in need of general financial help don?t turn to local charities. They run to government for welfare, Social Security and other forms of public assistance.

Some readers may be tempted to say: ?So what? As long as people in need get help, it doesn?t matter where it comes from.? But when you consider our nation?s history of hard work, self-reliance and strong communities, you begin to realize that it does matter. Indeed, this question goes right to the heart of the American experiment in self-rule.

Our founders were keenly aware of the role that independence plays in creating and sustaining a well-ordered society. ?Dependence begets subservi¬ence and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition,? Thomas Jefferson wrote in his 1787 Notes on the State of Virginia. Benjamin Franklin, in a 1766 essay on prices and poverty, said, ?The best way of doing good to the poor is not making them easy in poverty, but driving them out of it.?

Their words serve as a good illustration of why we need to do a better job teaching history to our children. Memorizing names and dates is important, but each generation needs to know the reasoning behind mankind?s noblest experiment in liberty and self-rule -- because if they don?t, quite frankly, those very concepts become endangered.

There?s another reason Americans? rising dependency on government matters: The number of people who actually pay for it is going down. According to The Tax Foundation, a record 42.5 million Americans last year paid no federal taxes after deductions and credits.

The question then becomes: Is society heading toward a ?tipping point? at which a majority, dependent on government services yet not charged for them, could press for a vast, unsustainable expansion of government? The Index grew out of concerns by leaders such as Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and others that the answer may very well be yes.

Take Medicare. In 1970, an estimated 20 million individuals were enrolled in the government?s health program for seniors, the Index notes. By 2003, that number had more than doubled, reaching more than 41 mil¬lion. And in less than 10 years, the rate of increase will only accelerate, as 77 million baby boomers begin to retiree.

?Civil society already has yielded substantial ground to the federal public sector,? says William Beach, director of Heritage?s Center for Data Analysis and author of the Index. ?When do we reach what George Will called the triumph of the entitlement state, where the special interests band together to form a majority that votes its short-term desires at the expense of the long-term public good??

Good question. The time to ask it is now -- before we reach that ?tipping point.?