Uncle Sam as Santa
America’s entitlements problem


The “government of the United States of America has become an entitlements machine,” Nicholas Eberstadt writes in A Nation of Takers: America’s Entitlement Epidemic. “As a day-to-day operation, the U.S. government devotes more attention and resources to the public transfers of money, goods, and services to individual citizens than to any other objective; and for the federal government, more to these ends than to any other purposes combined,” he underscores. Eberstadt, a demographer at the American Enterprise Institute, talks about the book and our entitlement culture with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.



KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: At what point did we become a nation of takers?

NICHOLAS EBERSTADT: It’s a work in progress, for better or worse. The sort of statistics I present in my little book help to illuminate the underlying trends.

According to the Census Bureau, as of spring 2011 (the latest data available at this writing) nearly half — i.e., 49 percent — of Americans lived in households accepting at least one public entitlement benefit. That would have been about 150 million Americans.

We think of Social Security and Medicare — our social guarantees for senior citizens — as being the country’s main entitlement vehicles. In purely financial terms, these are certainly America’s two biggest entitlement programs: Taken together, Medicare and the Social Security pension fund account for roughly half of the almost $2.4 trillion in transfers the government handed out this past year. But of the 150 million Americans who were on entitlements, only 50 million were Social Security pension recipients.

So who were all the rest? Well, about 100 million American entitlement recipients were not on Social Security. Two-thirds of Americans getting entitlement benefits today, in other words, are not senior citizens, and are not living in households that included Social Security beneficiaries.

The overwhelming majority of Americans who use public benefit programs these days are getting “means tested” benefits, poverty-justified benefits: Medicaid, food stamps, WIC, TANF, and all the rest. One American in three now lives in a “means tested” home.

And remember, those benefits don’t just get sent out: You have to apply for them. Never before have so many able-bodied and (at least by any historical benchmark) relatively well-to-do Americans pled poverty for the purpose of getting a handout from Uncle Sam.

These patterns, I would submit, speak to a profound, even radical, change in mentality in the United States. That’s why I called my book Nation of Takers.

LOPEZ: Does this mean that Mitt Romney was essentially right about his “47 percent” assessment?

EBERSTADT: Romney’s hapless “47 percent” soliloquy has taken on a life of its own, entirely apart from the context in which he was using it. That’s the best I can say in his defense.

As an exposition of the entitlements problem, his words were both a muddle and a mangle.

First of all: Just about every American adult pays taxes — if not income taxes, then payroll taxes, or property taxes, or sales taxes, or some other taxes. We have a lot of taxes in this country.

The argument about income taxes is very different from the argument about entitlements. Income taxes are intended to finance the federal government — you know, the folks the Constitution charges with protecting us against “enemies foreign and domestic.” Shouldn’t everyone in our country contribute to the federal taxes that support (among other things) our national defense? Even, say, just ten dollars?

The problem with exempting almost half of America from income taxes is first and foremost a problem of citizenship — a failure of our conception of civic duty. Our entitlement epidemic also, in my view, entails a failure in our conception of citizenship and civic duty — but that one is a completely separate fight.

Unfortunately, by conflating the two, Romney actually made it more difficult for all the rest of us to talk about America’s entitlement problem. He provided opponents of entitlement reform with an incredible gift: Since that gaffe, debaters can shut down discussion of the entitlements problem with a mocking invocation of the “47 percent” line.

LOPEZ: What is happening to our men? How has this happened?

EBERSTADT: As the entitlements revolution has unfolded, America has witnessed a mass flight from work by adult men. This is one of the most important untold stories in modern America.

In the year 2010, in the worst job market in memory for most Americans, the gap between the number of men over 20 looking for work and those who had work amounted to 6.5 percentage points. That’s what a really scary unemployment situation looks like, in terms of labor-force participation rates.

Now consider this: Between 1948 and 2008 — in the period before the recent crash — the labor-force participation rate for adult men fell steadily, by a cumulative total of about 13 percentage points. In other words, the long-term drop in the share of adult men working, or looking for work, was twice as great as the “employment gap” for those still looking for work in 2010.

Clearly there are a host of factors involved in a social sea-change like this. The rise of the entitlement state is only one of them. But it is an important one. And the reflexive “structuralist” response that jobs just weren’t there looks less compelling when you consider female labor-force participation over those same decades: Those rates jumped by almost ten points between 1978 and 2008 — and by about 30 points over the whole post-war era.