The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Opinion

November 19, 2012

Marta Mossburg, columnist: How we became United States of Welfare

— Taking government handouts is as American as reality TV. As political economist and demographer Nicholas Eberstadt writes in his new book, “A Nation of Takers: America’s Entitlement Epidemic,” “The United States is at the verge of a symbolic threshold: the point at which more than half of all American households receive, and accept, transfer benefits from the government.” 

Even worse, he writes, “it will only be a matter of time before a majority of Americans are seeking and obtaining ‘anti-poverty’ benefits — regardless of their wealth or their employment prospects.”

Think about that. People who don’t actually meet any poverty threshold will claim benefits because they can. Old America, meet the brave new America where meritocracy is traded in for a new smartphone.

We’re already there by some measures. According to a 2009 report by the U.S. Energy Information Agency, 62 percent of households making less than $20,000 per year own between two and four televisions. Sixty-eight percent of those who earn $120,000 or more have the same number.

For a nation whose identity is rooted in hard work and personal industriousness, this is a staggering turn toward the crumbling Old World social democratic compact.

And it happened before most people even noticed.

In 1960, the welfare state was less than one third of total federal spending, according to Eberstadt. By 2010 it was two-thirds of federal spending. “Thus, in a very real sense, American governance has literally turned upside-down by entitlements — and within living memory,” he writes.

The cost is staggering. He notes that in 2010 entitlements equaled about $7,200 per person, or about $29,000 for an average family of four.

And it is all being fueled by debt. As Eberstadt writes, “For the sake of pure short-term expedience, the U.S. democracy has decided to mortgage its tomorrow for a more comfortable today.” In other words, those of us living are asking the unborn to pay for our mortgages and back surgeries and Friday night pizza and beer. O say can you see a problem?

It doesn’t matter if the benefits don’t seem lavish to those who accept them or bestow them. The issue is that we can’t afford them. Coincidentally, Eberstadt notes that the federal deficit has recently been almost the same as our spending on Social Security and Medicare.

For him the price is high, but the moral cost even more debilitating. He points out that millions of men have exited the work force since the rise of the entitlement society really began in post-World War II America.

He also shows that abuse of the welfare state has skyrocketed, with millions more relying on government disability payments despite public health data that show American workplaces to be much safer and Americans healthier.

For those who say this is one more study railing against minorities, the data shows that “the proclivity to rely upon government disability payments today is as least as much a ‘white thing’ as a tendency for any other American group.” Charles Murray came to a similar conclusion in his recent book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.”

His research shows that Mitt Romney wasn’t that far off base with his 47 percent remarks. Remember when the former Republican presidential candidate was secretly taped saying it was not his job “to worry about” the 47 percent who don’t pay federal income taxes and who don’t “take personal responsibility and care for their lives”?

Almost no one in the media focused on the groundswell of dependency in the nation revealed by that figure and what it meant for our future. Instead, commentators on both the left and right excoriated Romney for dismissing half of America. The cacophony against him was so loud it was as if the crowd thought demonizing him would somehow make the problem go away.

The political smack-down worked, but Eberstadt’s chilling, chart-filled book shows our metastasizing tumor of debt is growing out of control fueled by members of both parties eager to leverage the unborn’s future for votes. To fix it, we must stop demonizing those who merely point out the truth.

Marta H. Mossburg writes frequently about national affairs and about politics in Maryland, where she lives. Read her at www.martamossburg.com. Write her at marta@martamossburg.com.

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