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“The Narcotic of Government Dependency”

- February 13, 2012

That’s Rick Santorum talking about the American welfare state. But who, really, is hooked–and how does that matter politically?

Yesterday’s New York Times featured a long, meaty article on the distribution of federal benefits. One of the more striking points, drawing on work by political scientist Dean Lacy, is that government benefits constitute a larger share of total income in “red” states than in “blue” states. (The Times article includes a lovely set of interactive maps detailing the geographical distribution of benefits from a variety of specific programs such as Medicare and unemployment compensation; here is the 2009 map of total benefits.)

A friend asks, “Is this true at the individual level? It isn’t, right?”

I imagine that the answer to that question depends a lot on what gets counted as government benefits (tax credits? grants and contracts?) and whether we are talking about gross benefits, benefits minus taxes, or benefits as a share of total income. As Monkey Cagers know (see herehere, and here), political scientist Suzanne Mettler’s book, The Submerged State, includes some excellent analysis of the tenuous relationship between objective and subjective dependency on the federal government.

In a review (forthcoming in Democracy) of political journalist Thomas Edsall’s new book, The Age of Austerity, I raise the question of how Republican policy-makers bent on budget-cutting will come to grips with the actual distribution of government spending:

In a perceptive recent essay in New York magazine, heterodox Republican David Frum sketched a political landscape much like the one portrayed by Edsall. “We have entered an era in which politics increasingly revolves around the ugly question of who will bear how much pain,” Frum wrote. “Conservative constituencies already see themselves as aggrieved victims of American government: They are the people who pay the taxes even as their ‘earned’ benefits are siphoned off to provide welfare for the undeserving.”

However, Frum went on to pinpoint the fundamental contradiction in this conservative worldview. “The reality,” he wrote, is that “the big winners in the American fiscal system are the rich, the old, the rural, and veterans—typically conservative constituencies.” Squeezing the programs conservatives hate won’t bring in much revenue, so balancing the budget would require chopping into programs most conservatives support—including defense, Medicare, Social Security, and middle-class tax breaks.

In Chain Reaction, Edsall recognized that “the anti-tax, anti-government view of the electorate … was directed at programs serving heavily minority and poor populations,” while spending on education, health, Social Security, crime control, and environmental protection “retained unstinting, and in some cases growing, majority support.” That remains true 20 years later; even most conservatives oppose cuts in most major government programs, and they do so even when they are reminded of the perils of deficit spending.

Unfortunately for Republicans—and for Edsall’s analysis of the politics of austerity—“programs serving heavily minority and poor populations” are not where the money is. According to the Census Bureau’s Consolidated Federal Funds Report, less than 8 percent of federal spending in 2010 was for unemployment benefits, food stamps, housing assistance, student aid, and the earned-income tax credit. Almost half was for salaries and wages, grants, and procurement; most of the rest consisted of Social Security and Medicare payments. Large-scale reductions in government spending would require significant cuts in big-ticket programs that mostly benefit the middle class. The political challenge facing budget-cutting Republicans is exacerbated by the fact that beneficiaries of government spending are disproportionately concentrated in red states. Federal expenditures made up almost 30 percent of total personal income in the 29 states that voted for John McCain, a significantly higher dependency level than in the states that voted for Barack Obama.

“The rank and file of the GOP,” Frum concluded, are “caught between their interests and their ideology.” This clash of interests and ideology is left largely unexplored in Edsall’s analysis. While he acknowledges that “substantial numbers of Republican voters have no appetite for cuts in the two programs that virtually every economist and budget analyst says must be chopped down to size: Medicare and Social Security,” he never really comes to grips with the question of how Republican politicians will finesse that fact. It is one thing to carp about the futility and injustice of government programs in the abstract, but something else to deprive voters of their concrete benefits.