Americans and Dependency

From Matthew Spalding:

Do you think benefits ought to entail working for them?

Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that 49% of the population lives in a household where at least one person gets some type of government benefit. The Heritage Foundation’s annual Index of Dependence on Government tracks government spending and creates a weighted score adjusted for inflation of federal programs that contribute to dependency. It reports that in 2010, 67.3 million Americans received either Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Social Security, support for higher education or other assistance once considered to be the responsibility of individuals, families, neighborhoods, churches, and other civil society institutions — an 8% increase from the year before.

These people aren’t necessarily dependent on government; many could live (even live well) without their Social Security check, Pell grant or crop subsidy. That’s not the point. The problem is that Washington is building a culture of dependency, with ever-more people relying on an ever-growing federal government to give them cash or benefits.

This is a growing and dangerous trend. The United States thrives because of a culture of opportunity that encourages work and disdains relying on handouts. The growth of the welfare state, a confusing alphabet soup of programs that are supposed to help low-income Americans make ends meet and do not include entitlements such as Social Security or Medicare, is turning us into a land where many expect, and see no stigma attached to, drawing regular financial support from the federal government….

Yet when poverty expert Robert Rector, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, examined these anti-poverty programs, he found that only two, the earned income tax credit and the additional child refundable credit, require recipients to actually work for their benefits.

Under a culture of dependency, poverty becomes a trap, and recipients get stuck. Long-term welfare recipients lose work habits and job skills and miss out on the marketplace contacts that lead to job opportunities. That’s a key reason the government should require welfare recipients to work as much as they can. What could be called “workfare” thus tends to increase long-term earnings among potential recipients.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Bob3

    I notice no one has commented on this post. I am but am not surprised either. Many people don’t want to hear this or deal with it. Doesn’t scripture say, “Those that don’t work, shouldn’t eat?” Yet we tolerate the behavior in our churches and say nothing.

    I work in a manufacturing environment where I have been trying to hire a technical skill set for the last three years. Is $25.00 / hr. plus benefits too little? Problem is, there is no one to take the jobs we offer. No one wants to work in the factory; you get your hands dirty, you toil for your pay. Not very attractive.

    Is this a theological problem? You bet. Are there Christians “on the dole”? You better believe it. Who are ones complaining the loudest that they are entitled to more on the job where I work? Unfortunately, a lot of times, those who have the most because they claim to call upon the God of the universe as their Savior. Should we be addressing this entitlement culture in the pulpit? I leave it to you.

  • Chris

    I must respond. The dependency culture exists in the wealthy and corporate structures just as must as in the folks that Mr. Spalding decides to “other” with this article. Yes, I agree. America has become a people who feel entitled, but that is all-inclusive…low, middle and high economic levels alike. He chooses to isolate certain persons who receive certain kinds of benefits. Typical Heritage Foundation perspective and spin. The so-called American culture of opportunity is simply a lot broader at the top than the bottom. And that’s simply disgusting.

  • Johnson

    I guarantee you that openings for $25/hr jobs in a factory here would result in people camping out overnight in line.

    What some term as “dependency” might ought to be better called “interdependency.” The term “dependency” tends to be used as a way to create conflict with the John Wayne rugged individualist Americans we see ourselves as, and it ignores the fact that we all live and work together on this world. True independent living is found in abundance in some places on earth, and they all tend to be brutishly nasty.

  • SFG

    Maybe I am misreading this, but the first paragraph says that 67.3 million Americans receive money from the government and Social Security is included in this figure. According to http://www.ssa.gov/pressoffice/basicfact.htm 56 million Americans receive Social Security benefits, and all of these people have paid into the Social Security fund (or their spouse or parent paid into the fund). So it seems to me that the VAST majority of Americans receiving government “benefits” are people who HAVE worked for the benefit.

  • Josh

    Have we forgotten about the current state of the economy? After getting laid off over 2 1/2 years ago from a retail job I worked at for over a decade I took the opportunity to go back to school and have still not found a “day” job in my new field (I went back to school to finish an Associates degree in something I had previously enjoyed as a hobby). There are lots of disheartening things that I see in the job market and are confirmed by other underemployed (or unemployed) people that I think most people don’t understand unless they are themselves involved in it or have a close relationship with someone who is. A lady who worked with me and helps others try to find training programs, etc. for various jobs recently confirmed several of my observations, as well.

    If one finds oneself without a job in the current job market, it is very ugly out there and we should be thankful for the safety nets. Discussion about personal responsibility, efficiency, fraud and other things is fine, but we can’t divorce the conversation from the bigger economic picture and job market which affect a whole lot of people.

  • cw

    I’m a health care provider and I daily see people “on disability” that collect a check and have healthcare coverage equal to medicare recipients. Here’s an example: Caucasian male, 50-55 yrs of age worked for 25- 30 yrs as a laborer in production. He injured his back at work & rehab apparently wasn’t successful in restoring him to lifting the weight expected in his former job or sitting for extended periods of time (4 hrs at a time). He was offered schooling/retraining for different skills at a local technical college but (in his words) “I wasn’t much good at school stuff.” Consequently, he got an attorney and was able to be declared “disabled”. He gets a regular income and healthcare and has nothing he must do for it. He believes he’s “entitled” to the benefits. Our “system”, whether it is called welfare, disability or ADC, is broken. Government bureaucracy’s inability to define true “need” or to provide just oversight has created a black hole of waste and abuse. Are there people who deserve our protection, care and provision? Absolutely!

    @ #2: I wonder if people who’ve figured out the “entitlement system” and executives who are paid unimaginably big bonuses in the midst of companies declaring bankruptcy all fall in the same category? “Hey, I got mine! Too bad for you.”

  • Barb

    Hey, we boomers are a wave that is moving through–you knew we were coming–now we are here. I’ve applied for my SSA starting next month. I worked for 35 years for it. I pay taxes and spend money. Why are people surprised that the numbers are high. Also, we will probably live for a while longer :) The boomers have caused change no matter what age we were–just in sheer numbers.

  • Kristen

    There are undoubtedly some subsidies that cultivate dependency. I think there are a lot fewer of them now than there were before the welfare reform of the mid-1990s (Has the current crop of Republicans forgotten that happened? It was in all the papers!) but undoubtedly there are some.

    But this paints with way too broad a brush. Social Security retirement benefits and some disability payments (SSDI as opposed to SSI) don’t require that you are working now, obviously, but are predicated on you having worked and paid into the system. My almost 97-year-old grandmother is receiving a lot in Social Security and Medicare now and she hasn’t worked in 20 years, but she did work full time well past age 75. “Get a job” has not been a viable option for a good long while now. She’s included in those numbers.

    Pell grants, which cover some small portion of higher education expenses for low income people, these cultivate dependency rather than work? Seriously???

    There may be a good point buried in here but it’s buried so deep I no longer have the energy to find it.

  • Jubal DiGriz

    One vital point I often don’t hear in this sorts of conversations is that money is needed to order to live. Without some way of paying rent, a person is homeless. Without some way of paying food, a person starves to death. There are of course church charities and such, but these are almost always stopgap measures and inadequately supported.

    To use CW’s example- in earlier times the man in question would have worked long enough to earn a pension, but there are precious few jobs nowadays that a person can hang onto that long, if the business even has a pension program for workers. He’s injured at work (any worker comp from injury?) Not mentioned) and now cannot physically do his old job, or work more than 20 hrs a week at an entry-level desk job. He goes back to school and finds he cannot pass classes.

    So, what then? Without these various tax-funded benefits, it sounds like he would be permanently homeless and struggling to survive, living worse than a prisoner for the crime of getting injured and not having the study skills to learn a new profession. Is it then acceptable for him to live on the streets and die from exposure and starvation? No mention of a family… if he has children perhaps he could move in with them, but perhaps he doesn’t have a family or is estranged from them.

    People die this way, from neglect and not enough people giving a damn. If charity WAS adequate on its own there wouldn’t be a need for welfare in the first place. People simply don’t give enough money to churches, and churches don’t spend enough money on charity, for it to be the be-all-end-all of aid.

    Christians should be at the forefront of welfare and other aid programs… no matter how hard and how long you work at your job, Jesus died to save everyone, and never qualified the charity owed to the least and poorest among us.

  • Dan

    Anyone know where I sign up for the free “Obama phone” that lady in Philly was talking about? I am out of work, can’t find a job, and I need a phone. That’s not bad is it?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tpAOwJvTOio

  • http://www.wanderprone.com Nate

    Dependency is not a class issue…it’s a human issue. Regardless of where we live, what income level we have, given a choice, in an unredeemed state, we’d all rather have something for nothing than have to work for it. Any government, church or mission aid/assistance program that doesn’t take into account the sin nature is going to, along with doing some good, do some very real bad in creating dependency. I’ve heard a colleague where I’m working (3rd world) say that it takes about a year to help mentor a person towards self-reliance…and in 5 minutes we can turn him back into a beggar.

  • http://azspot.net Naum

    More hating on poor people.

    And staggering how propagandists on the right like to have it both ways — the unemployment % rate increase is all Obama’s fault but at a micro level, those who do not have gainful employment are simply freeloader dependent scum on the government dole. And all the while dishing out tankers full of “dependent” loot to companies like Lockheed ($35 billion in one year), Boeing ($19 billion in one year), Halliburton ($7 billion in one year as a no-bid payoff), and hundreds of other companies, tearing money out of the federal budget funding dinosaur procurement programs that in some cases the military itself has said they no longer want and need.

    Also propping up dependents of the wealthiest companies and individuals who use the byzantine tax code as a road map to determine how best to conceal their holdings and avoid as much tax outlay as possible, to the extent where companies such as General Electric pay no tax whatsoever and individuals such as Mitt Romney have a lower effective tax rate than, well, me. Keeping these corporate welfare schemes in place is a large part of why billionaires such as Sheldon Adelson and investment firms such as Goldman Sachs are pumping millions into the election – it’s out of pure self interest (and in Adelson’s case, ensuring that Palestine never exists – a cause which also has him literally single-handedly destroying Israel’s newspaper industry by funding a free daily newspaper putting other, less Netanyahu-friendly papers that actually have to earn revenue, out of business.)

    Corporate welfare is destroying our economy through gutting its competitiveness, our long-term growth through a defunding of education and infrastructure due to governmental fiscal collapse thanks to a shrinking tax base, and, through income inequality unrivaled since the Gilded Age, our society as a whole.

    And the right’s solution? The poor need to pay more taxes and the rich less…

  • Paul

    Being dependent on the government long term is not ideal. However I was thankful when my single mom (and as a result me and my siblings) received SSDI for a few years when my mom was unable to work. Thankfully her condition went into remission, giving her the option of work.

    Perhaps listing statistics is helpful in some cases, but at times it can overshadow the actual people who are behind the numbers. I for one am thankful that my family was able to rely on the tax dollars people pay to the government.

  • Diane

    I sometimes think we’ve had so much affluence for so long that we no longer have a collective memory of how bad things can be. My evangelical Southern Baptist in-laws, both in their 90s, do remember, and support government policies to support people. We also assume that a “culture of dependency” began with the Great Society of the 1960s or perhaps after New Deal reforms starting to take hold in the latter 1930s. But if you read literature set in the days before 1935, you see that what was called “white trash” or “shiftless whites” existed without the help of the welfare state: Such people managed to wheedle a minimal survival out of their neighbors while doing nothing or very little. So a certain number of people, I would imagine, will never work. Perhaps the state shouldn’t pay for them–and except for SSI disability, the state has limited its support–but it’s a dream to think that simply pulling out all the supports will send everyone to work. Even in Nazi Germany, where the “work shy” were sent to concentration camps for a corrective “stint” of 4 to 6 weeks, people came out and wouldn’t go to work. The Nazis executed them. I imagine we would be loathe to do that.

    Also, I too have watched the devastating effects of long term unemployment on people I know who can’t get a toehold back in the full employment market despite being hardworking, educated people. It’s as if some sort of stigma attaches or some sort of strange vengeance is in play. It’s inexplicable to me, but I know these friends want fall time employment, are quietly growing more worried, more demoralized and more poor as they try to hold on to the middle class, are patching together whatever part-time work they can get, but really, truly need what little assistance the gov’t provides.

  • Catherine

    I’m on SSDI in addition to my private disability insurance (for which I’m immensely grateful) since I had to leave the practice of medicine six years ago. I grew up believing that anyone getting government assistance was just lazy. I’m still working to deal with my own emotional issues over not being able to work due to illness. My husband and I have opened a small retail business a year ago which isn’t making any money yet, but allows me to work on my good days and gives us both a place of ministry in our community.

    With my private insurance, we’re not hurting for money, but not working hurts on so many levels. In my practice I would see people who would rather take their SSDI than find a job they could do. I couldn’t understand it at the time – and I really don’t understand it now. I like to work. I love that we have a place where I can be “productive” on good days and I’m looking forward to when my illness calms down enough for me.

    All that being said, I wouldn’t be on SSDI except that my private insurance did the application so they don’t have to pay me as much. In a perfect world, much disability could be covered by private companies, people would start their retirement saving early and carry it from job to job, etc. I do believe that there will always be an underclass that will require our care, whether via government, church, or some combination.

    I don’t know that I have any real conclusion except that there are plenty of us on some kind of government subsidies who would much prefer to be working.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I read once how much easier it is to discriminate and hate, not that this article is hating, groups of people rather than individuals. For those who want to end support, I would like to see you address the individuals that make up this group, some who posted here.

  • sg

    There is not much more soul-destroying than being unable to work and provide for oneself and one’s loved ones – much less meaningfully engage in those things taken for granted by the culture at large. for an extended period of time. Being blamed for the circumstance, judged for it and having a movement to take away what support you do have access to (yes, Social Security is broken – it’s excruciatingly hard to get even if one does have an attorney) taken away based on your “laziness” and “bad character” does add a special touch to the experience.

  • sg

    *Social Security – clarification; Social Security Disability designation

  • Neil

    Some here are missing the point, which makes significant dialogue that much more difficult. The article is not “hating” on anyone. And no one is suggesting that gov’t help be eliminated. The article simply raises the question of dependency given the exponential growth of those receiving gov’t support.


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