Uncle Sam as Santa
America’s entitlements problem



LOPEZ: We are so far beyond concerns about having a safety net, aren’t we? How do we make sure, though, in working toward reform, that no one who legitimately needs help lacks it?

EBERSTADT: As of last year, our government was dispensing almost $2.4 trillion a year in entitlements — over $7,400 per man, woman, and child in our country per annum; over $30,000 per year for a notional household of four. And that is just the net transfer: Those totals don’t include the administrative costs of the programs.


I won’t make any claims about the efficacy of that spending, or its completeness of coverage for the truly needy — but it is pretty hard to look at those numbers and think the main problem in our entitlement universe today is under-spending.

By the way: Left out of all this discussion of government safety nets is the hundreds of billions of dollars in charitable giving that ordinary Americans voluntarily contribute each year to non-profit organizations, including social-service providers. The civil-society safety net is immensely important in America — shouldn’t we recognize, protect, and celebrate it?

LOPEZ: Why did you dedicate your book to Daniel Patrick Moynihan?

EBERSTADT: DPM was a great man — an extraordinary public intellectual in politics. I had the privilege of learning from him. I served as a “section man” in his Harvard course Soc Sci 118, “Social Science and Social Policy,” the year he successfully ran for Senate in New York. In my experience he was always interested in ideas, and in new facts — even when these seemed to challenge received wisdom, or, for that matter, his preferred outcomes. He was unfailingly kind, considerate, and generous to me — and to the many others of my ilk whose lives he touched. I admired him enormously, and still do.

That’s the personal connection. Leave that aside, though: Moynihan was the most knowledgeable and acute voice on the American welfare-and-dependence conundrum in his day — and he understood the difference between poverty and dependence in his bones. We could do with someone with only half his acumen in the public square these days.

LOPEZ: What’s the most shocking fact in A Nation of Takers?

EBERSTADT: If I had to pick one fact that shocked me? How about this: The share of men today who are totally out of the work force — i.e., neither working nor looking for work — is over twice as high for Americans in their late 30s as for their counterparts . . . in Greece. In fact, the share of men in this prime work age who have opted out of the work system altogether is higher in the U.S. than in just about any welfare state in Western Europe.

We in the U.S. tend to marvel at the Europeans’ five-week annual vacations — but the sad truth is that a remarkable number of American men are taking 52-week vacations each year.

LOPEZ: What’s the most hopeful fact in A Nation of Takers?

EBERSTADT: That it’s not an obituary. We Americans are in Christmas Present right now — not Christmas Future. We can still turn things around — if we have the mettle for it. And we can even do so before crisis or disaster eliminates all other options.


LOPEZ: Tell me about Nortax. Who came up with the idea, and if an eight-year-old can come to understand the entitlement crisis, why can’t Washington seem to?

EBERSTADT: Oh, yeah! It’s a fun little video cartoon, you can see it on YouTube.

It seems to have developed a little cult following . . . My colleagues at AEI came up with this Seuss send-up, based on my book. I’ll leave it to viewers to decide whether their elected officials should see this. As for Dr. Seuss, I fear it may have him spinning in his urn . . . 

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.