Independent, but Dependent

From Binyamin Appelbaum and Robert Gebeloff:

There is little poverty here in Chisago County, northeast of Minneapolis, where cheap housing for commuters is gradually replacing farmland. But Mr. Gulbranson and many other residents who describe themselves as self-sufficient members of the American middle class and as opponents of government largess are drawing more deeply on that government with each passing year.

Dozens of benefits programs provided an average of $6,583 for each man, woman and child in the county in 2009, a 69 percent increase from 2000 after adjusting for inflation. In Chisago, and across the nation, the government now provides almost $1 in benefits for every $4 in other income.

Older people get most of the benefits, primarily throughSocial Security and Medicare, but aid for the rest of the population has increased about as quickly through programs for the disabled, the unemployed, veterans and children.

The government safety net was created to keep Americans from abject poverty, but the poorest households no longer receive a majority of government benefits. A secondary mission has gradually become primary: maintaining the middle class from childhood through retirement. The share of benefits flowing to the least affluent households, the bottom fifth, has declined from 54 percent in 1979 to 36 percent in 2007, according to a Congressional Budget Office analysis published last year.


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  • T

    In order for this kind of data to be helpful, it needs to get much more specific.

    All we can draw from this is that more older people are qualifying for social security and medicare (especially as the boomers begin qualifying for medicare), and there also more benefits being paid to the “disabled, the unemployed, veterans and children” under other programs.

    As to how these programs are benefiting folks who are not among the “poorest households,” we have to look at each program and the conditions to qualify, which is beyond one post let alone one comment. But I will say that, for example, medicare is not (and never has been?) conditioned on financial need, only age. The boomers are qualifying now, so expect that program to bleed money as poor and rich boomer alike benefit. Same with social security (the retirement payments program). Boomers who paid in from wages will now start receiving benefits, whether rich or poor. Further, the amount they take will be largely a function of what they paid in. Neither of these programs are set up as “safety nets” for the very poor, per se.

    Now, if we want to change both of these programs so that only the poor qualify, I think that’s worth serious discussion, but good luck. Older folks tend to vote and have powerful lobbying. Can anyone imagine the AARP’s response to someone proposing that both Medicare and Social Security adopt a condition of financial need? Ouch.

  • Bill Caulfield

    The comment by T shows that the Article is, at best, misleading or, at worst, dishonest. Seriously disappointing!

  • And don’t forget the highways that these commuters travel on each day to get to work. They’re employers didn’t build the roads and bridges, the government did. Yes, the tax payers pay for them with taxes, but we all share them.

  • Richard

    @ 1,2

    The article focuses on the tension many are experiencing as they call for cuts in gov’t social programs while being beneficiaries of those same programs:

    “Many people say they are angry because the government is wasting money and giving money to people who do not deserve it. But more than that, they say they want to reduce the role of government in their own lives. They are frustrated that they need help, feel guilty for taking it and resent the government for providing it. They say they want less help for themselves; less help in caring for relatives; less assistance when they reach old age”

    Not sure where you reached your conclusion that this was inaccurate or misleading.

    It’s intriguing also that states that receive more federal assistance than they pay into the federal system also tend to lean Republican/Conservative.

  • DLS

    “It’s intriguing also that states that receive more federal assistance than they pay into the federal system also tend to lean Republican/Conservative.

    – And the policies favored by the conservatives in those states would diminish this disparity.

  • DRT

    This all is a mess. I agree with all the comments because the truth is not easy to ascertain. Folks, this crisis is a natural outgrowth of the baby boom, and it is going to take time to work through the system. Neither political party is going to solve it, it is built in to our population.

    But what do you tell people? That no matter what we do they are not going to improve? The line between the haves and have nots is getting bigger and bigger. It’s not going to be until we start getting significant attrition from the baby boomers that this is going to start to turn around.

  • Jason Lee

    Government assistance is government assistance regardless of whether its based on age or need. The NYT article points out a simple fact, that places that are the most in favor of cutting government spending at the same time tend to take the most in government assistance. The excellent article also illustrates that individual people also exhibit this pattern. The original article is worth reading and may give you a better sense of what’s being argued. Interestingly, the article illustrates that we needn’t assume that people are completely rational or logical when it comes such things.