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AEI invited me to participate on a panel with Eberstadt a few months ago, when the essay was just a series of unpublished PowerPoint slides.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.
Changing that system was not just a matter of imposing work requirements, but of smoothing the path into the workforce and toward self-sufficiency. Medicaid eligibility was delinked from welfare and linked instead to income, starting at 100 percent of the poverty level and reaching 185 percent in the Affordable Care Act. Together with the State Childrens' Health Insurance Program, expansions of the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, the Refundable Additional Child Tax Credit, the Child and Dependent Care Credit, the Make Work Pay Credit, expansion of child care, the after-school and summer food programs, and others, we have created a safety net that extends well into the low-income working population. These individuals, too, are both takers and givers – they are working hard, contributing to the economy, and while some of them may not pay federal income taxes at the moment, they will as they move up.
This dramatic reorientation of the safety net didn't just happen; most of these initiatives had significant bipartisan and cross-ideological support. Not only do they provide a ladder out of poverty and reward work, they also make possible the relatively low-wage, low-security labor market that gives employers enormous flexibility. Conservatives used to argue, for example, that raising the EITC was a better alternative to raising the minimum wage, and they mostly won that fight. The result is that low-wage employment is essentially subsidized, and businesses are able to hire at very low cost and low commitment, with none of the barriers to either hiring or firing that are common in Europe. Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney and others in the current wave of conservatism seem to have entirely forgotten the merits of these innovations, and in their promise to protect programs only for the very, very poor, they threaten to restore the hopeless poverty traps of the 1970s and 1980s.
It's also worth noting that most members of the “Nation of Takers” probably don't think of ourselves as “takers.” In her important recent book, The Submerged State, Suzanne Mettler of Cornell looked at data asking people whether they had ever benefited from a government social program. While most participants in the classic, older transfer programs were aware that they had benefited from programs, most of the newer programs, especially those delivered through the tax code, were invisible to a majority of their beneficiaries. (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.)
While many on the left latched onto this data as evidence that Americans, especially conservatives, are hypocrites who revel in public benefits while maintaining an anti-government stance, there's really much more to it than that. Delivering benefits through “submerged state” programs has broken any kind of connection between citizens and the benefits we receive. We can't have a clear debate about whether we're a “Nation of Takers” or whether these benefits are essential to maintaining the promise of a middle class country if most of us don't even know the role that government plays in our lives.
Conservatives and liberals built the submerged state together, often sharing a preference for delivering benefits through the tax code. But a concerted effort to reduce the long-term budget deficit, with tax reform at the center of it, creates an opportunity to surface submerged programs and replace them with far more efficient, visible, direct programs. When the public is fully aware of the benefits it's receiving, it's possible that voters will recoil in shock at the degree of their dependency, or perhaps they will regain a healthy respect for the role of government in providing some of the security that helps them take full advantage of their capacities and opportunities.
It's disappointing that Romney shows no interest in either drawing out the submerged state or in the bipartisan project (of which his health reform in Massachusetts was a part) of smoothing the path to economic success for families. Instead, he just sees half the country as people who can't be convinced “that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” That's a very strange view of this country and a tragic development in modern conservatism.
Mark Schmitt is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.