Americans pride themselves on being a self-reliant people. We know that the freedom to make our own fortune sets us apart from the people of many other nations. It’s what has drawn to our shores generations of immigrants - men and women risking their lives to live a life in which they, not the government, are in charge.
But with each passing year, that portrait flies more and more in the face of reality. The numbers plainly show that we are becoming a people dependent not on ourselves, but on government. We are evolving into a nation of takers, not givers.
The numbers in question come in the form of a new Heritage Foundation report, the 2012 Index of Dependence on Government. You don’t have to read far before you realize that the days of Horatio Alger stories are behind us.
Start with the most basic facts: More than 67.3 million Americans rely on assistance from Washington for everything from food, shelter and clothing to college tuition and health care. These benefits cost federal taxpayers roughly $2.5 trillion annually.
About those taxpayers: Even as the number of Americans receiving federal aid rises, the number of federal taxpayers continues to drop: Nearly half of all Americans - 49.5 percent - don’t pay any federal income taxes. If that strikes you as an equation that will spell trouble down the road, you have a better grasp of the problem than many politicians have right now.
“The danger of a growing government-dependent population,” says William Beach, index co-author and director of Heritage’s Center for Data Analysis, “is that it’s voting for more benefits that end up being paid by fewer taxpayers. At some point, this unsustainable fiscal model will collapse.”
Perhaps the most startling part of the index concerns how much assistance is being distributed. Americans who rely on government receive an average $32,748 worth of benefits. How high is that? Higher than the average American’s disposable personal income: $32,446.
Yes, being dependent on government is actually a better deal for some people than working. If that doesn’t turn the whole American ideal on its head, nothing does.
The pace of the change is troubling, too. Overall, the Index - which scores the nation’s dependency across numerous federal assistance programs whose work once was handled through communities, churches, neighborhood groups and the private sector - rose 8.1 percent in 2010 (the most recent data available).
Not surprisingly, all this spending is eating up a larger and larger portion of Washington’s budget. The amount of federal spending that went toward dependence-creating government programs was 28.3 percent in 1962. By 1990, it was 48.5 percent. Now it’s 70.5 percent. How much higher can it go without making it impossible to pay for other essential functions? Defense, for example, already faces draconian cuts in the near future.
We shouldn’t be fatalistic, of course. This disturbing course can be reversed. But it’s going to take some serious political will - the kind that comes only when “we the people” apply pressure. Congress has got to curb federal spending, reform welfare and entitlement programs and encourage more community-based aid and personal responsibility.
Otherwise, we’ll see the downward spiral continue. The research shows that as bureaucratic programs replace aid from private charities, communities and neighbors, Americans are less likely to prosper and achieve true independence.
“Liberty means responsibility,” George Bernard Shaw once wrote. “That is why most men dread it.” Most men, perhaps, but surely not Americans. Or will later generations look back and see that we stood by and allowed our once-great nation to lose its charter as the beacon of independence for the rest of the world?
Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).
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