Posted: March 16th, 2022
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Read the AT ISSUE in Chapter 11 of the ebook. Choose a point of view and discuss your reasoning for supporting that viewpoint.
WHO BENEFITS FROM BIG GOVERNMENT? The 2016 elections provided new information on popular attitudes toward the size of government. Donald Trump quickly established himself as the front-runner in the Republican presidential primaries. It soon became clear that neither Trump nor his followers were particularly enamored of the traditional small-government conservatism supported by most Republican officeholders. This attitude had also been common among supporters of the Tea Party, a conservative movement organized after Obama became president.* Most Tea Party supporters had no problems with programs such as Medicare and Social Security that benefited older voters, many of whom were white. They did oppose programs such as Obama’s health-care plan that were seen as primarily benefiting poorer Americans in general and minority group members in particular. (Of course, other groups have had different issues with Obamacare.)
The question, in other words, was not so much the size of government but who benefits from big government. Trump’s most ardent supporters largely shared this “who benefits” viewpoint. For more on programs such as Social Security and Medicare, see this chapter’s At Issue feature.
At IssueDoes Entitlement Spending Corrupt Us?
Certain federal benefits are called entitlements because you are entitled to receive them if you meet specific requirements. If you meet certain age and previous earnings requirements, you can receive a monthly Social Security check. If you lose your job, you may be entitled to unemployment benefits for a certain number of weeks. If your family income is below a certain level, you are typically entitled to benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called food stamps).
In recent years, federal entitlement spending has ballooned. Indeed, big government has gotten bigger in large part because Americans are receiving more entitlement payments every year. At all levels combined, government spending now has a value equivalent to about 36 percent of GDP. Some have argued that large-scale entitlement spending is corrupting us.
The More You Give People, the Less They’ll Work
Conservatives point out that entitlement transfers—adjusted for rising prices and population growth—are now more than seven times what they were in 1960. (In part, this is because major programs such as Medicare and Medicaid were created in the 1960s.) Currently, almost half of Americans live in a household that receives at least one government benefit. If you count tax deductions, almost every household receives benefits.
Consider SNAP benefits. In 2007, 26 million Americans received them. By 2017, about 46 million Americans received them. The same story applies to Social Security disability payments. Four million people received disability checks in 1988. Today, disability checks are distributed to almost 11 million people. Fewer people are now in the labor force, and those who are work fewer hours per year. Since 2000, the labor force participation rate has fallen continuously, even during boom times. Many believe that increased entitlement benefits have reduced people’s desire to join the labor force. In other words, entitlements corrupt.
Entitlements Are a Needed Part of the Social Contract
While the statistics just presented are accurate, political progressives do not accept the conclusions drawn. With an aging society, we should expect to pay more for Social Security. The same is true for government-financed health care. Health-care expenses are driven up not only by larger numbers of the elderly, but also by increasingly expensive (and effective) medical procedures.
Contrary to what some have argued, Americans are not divided between “makers” and “takers.” At various times in our lives, we are all takers, and almost all of us are makers. As President Obama said in his second inaugural address, “The commitments we make to each other—through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security—these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. . . . they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
Americans believe in hard work as much as they always have. The Pew Economic Mobility Project sampled Americans on what is essential for getting ahead. More than 90 percent responded “hard work,” and almost 90 percent answered “ambition.” That doesn’t sound like corruption.
For Critical Analysis
Who ultimately pays for entitlement programs?
TRUMP’S SUPPORTERS. Trump won in the November general elections in part because loyal Republicans rallied to his campaign. Still, a new block of voters—many of whom had not voted in previous elections—put him over the top. Trump’s strongest support came from white voters without a college education. This group is commonly called the white working class. (Earlier definitions of working class were based more on occupation than education.) By 2016, it was clear that in many rural areas, the white working class was experiencing a social crisis marked by falling life expectancies, high rates of drug abuse, and a bleak view of the future. In fact, county by county, poor health was as much an indicator of Trump support as low levels of education.*
New support for Trump was not based in the most troubled parts of the white working class. Such people were likely not to vote at all. Trump voters, rather, were often somewhat better off, but saw their communities unraveling around them. Stagnant incomes and closing factories were part of the story. A belief that immigrants and minority group members were “cutting in line” ahead of whites was clearly another.* It was also no secret that as a result of population growth among minority groups, the United States was on its way to becoming a minority-majority nation by 2050, as you can see in
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