Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Soft Costs of the Safety Net.

This Sunday's New York Times had an interesting  article on the distribution of government benefit programs as a percentage of all income.  The article, "Even Critics of Safety Net Increasingly Depend on It," includes a great interactive map that allows you to look into the data county-by-county and by individual categories of government subsidies.  The two major takeaways from the report are: 

(1) Over the past forty years, from 1969 to 2009 (last year data had been compiled), the percentage of all national income represented by government subsidies has increased from 8% in 1969 to 18% in 2009.  So, the trend towards dependency on government outlays (or "socialism" if you prefer) to prop up disposable income has been pretty dramatic. 

(2) The states in which the Republican party has been doing best since the days of "the silent majority" and Democrats for Nixon, continuing through Reagan Democrats, and on to the Angry White Men for Bush, have consistently been the southern states that are most heavily subsidized by government welfare programs. 

Medicaid, medicare and social security increases account for almost 8% of the nearly 10% increase in government welfare spending as a percentage of income over the past forty years,  Social Security increases can probably be traced primarily to the gradual aging of the population.  Medicaid and Medicare increases can be traced to the increased priority placed on ensuring adequate health care for all Americans, the aging of the population, and lack of adequate cost controls over health care spending under the systems in place over the past forty years. 

Mitt Romney continues to attack the President for trying to convert us to "European style
socialism."  It would be interesting to see comparative data from the European countries.  It might well be, because of the costs of our patch work system for health care, that the percentage of government subsidy for income in Sweden, for example, is not much higher that our own.

George Packer has an interesting post in today's New Yorker "Daily Comment" blog called "Poor, White and Republican" that comments on the New York Times article.  He describes a Minnesotan who is introduced in the New York Times piece as a Republican stalwart:
In the Times story, there’s a man named Ki Gulbranson from a small Minnesota town called Chisago, both barely clinging to the middle class. He tries to make ends meet selling apparel and refereeing kids’ soccer games. All around him, he sees growing dependence on government. No fan of government spending, he joined the Tea Party in 2010; at the same time, he benefits from the Earned Income Tax Credit, free school breakfasts for his children, and Medicare for his mother. “I don’t demand that the government does this for me,” he said. “I don’t feel like I need the government.” Yet he finds it hard to imagine surviving without the safety net. “I don’t think so,” he said. “No. I don’t know. Not the way we expect to live as Americans.”
Gulbranson’s moment of hesitation contains a certain explanatory power. He doesn’t want to say that he can’t live without government. In places like Chisago, the old ethic of self-reliance is real and fierce. But it’s disintegrating under the pressure of several bad economic decades. People in Park Slope, Brooklyn and the north shore of Chicago don’t see their neighbors going on disability when they could work. But the more Gulbranson sees it, the more he resents the government. Perhaps he resents it most of all because he knows he needs it. That’s a political conundrum for both parties, but even more, it’s an American problem

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