Despite an improving economy, the share of Americans dependent on government for part of their income remains near historical highs, and the candidates running for president mostly have been mum on how to reverse a decades-long trend.
The economic collapse in 2008 sent millions of Americans to government safety net programs like food stamps and Medicaid. Millions more swelled the disabilities rolls when they exhausted unemployment benefits. Last year, there were 45.8 million food stamp recipients, down slightly from the all-time high in 2013 but 60 percent more than in 2008. The story is similar with disability, where the number of recipients grew by more than 1.7 million between 2008 and 2014.
The share of personal income coming from government social services payments hit an all-time high of 18.3 percent in 2010. That is a category that includes everything from food stamps to Social Security — any income from the government that does not come from salaries or contracts. Since then, the percentage has tapered off, falling to 17.1 percent in 2015. But that is still 3 full percentage points higher than it was a decade ago.
Nicholas Eberstadt, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute who has studied the issue, said the dependence on government has increased through good times and bad, through Republican and Democratic administrations. The rate has increased an average of 3 tenths of a percent a year, or about 3.5 percentage points a decade.
“Only the calendar year tells you anything statistically significant,” he said. “We’re defining a new normal all the time … It is unnervingly bipartisan.”
Eberstadt, author of “A Nation of Takers: America’s Entitlement Epidemic,” said increasing dependence has resulted from a combination of factors. New welfare programs have been created and existing ones expanded. Eligibility restrictions have been eased and government administrators have worked to make sure that all who qualify for various programs sign up for them.
Eberstadt pointed to another factor: The erosion of the traditional stigma that prevented Americans from accepting government assistance even if they qualified.
In 1965, according the Bureau of Economic Analysis, 5.9 percent of personal income came from transfer payments. Social Security accounted for the largest chunk of that. The number began to rise once the entitlement programs of then-President Lyndon Johnson kicked in. Medicare and Medicaid provided health care to millions of older and poorer Americans.
Within a decade, the percentage of income from entitlement programs had nearly doubled. It spiked again after the severe recession in the early 1980s and then leveled off before rising again in the 1990s. If economic turmoil were the sole cause, then numbers should return to ordinary levels once the crisis passes, Eberstadt said.
“This is like an anti-gravity machine,” he said.
Researchers for the conservative Heritage Foundation found last year that about 100 million people — nearly one in three Americans — participate in at least one of 80 means-tested programs. This includes welfare and programs like Pell Grants for college education and tax credits but excludes Social Security and Medicare. The total cost to federal and state governments was $943 billion in 2013.
Patrick Tyrrell, research coordinator at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Data Analysis, noted the expansion in government benefits has coincided with an explosion in the national debt.
“The next time a politician promises one more ‘free’ government benefit, the “Me Generation” should remember that they are living on borrowed time and borrowed money,” he wrote in the Heritage Foundation’s in-house news site.
[lz_table title=”Food Stamp Nation” source=”Department of Agriculture”]Year,Recipients (in millions)
For such a consequential and long-running trend, the rise in government dependency has received scant attention during the presidential campaign.
In his 2011 book, “Time to Get Tough,” front-runner Donald Trump characterized food stamps as part of President Obama’s broader “nanny-state agenda” and argued the program should be temporary.
“But when half of food stamp recipients have been on the dole for nearly a decade, something is clearly wrong, and some of it has to do with fraud,” he wrote.
Sen. Ted Cruz in 2013 explained his vote against the farm bill as opposition to a “massive expansion in food stamps, trapping millions in long-term dependency.”
When he was in Congress, Gov. John Kasich co-sponsored the welfare reform bill that placed a lifetime limit on food stamp usage. But he also angered conservatives as governor by expanding Ohio’s Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act.
“It would be nice to have a comprehensive analysis of how you get the escalator working again,” Eberstadt said.