The numbers in this The New York Times piece should be blazed across newspaper headlines across the nation, plastered on everyone’s shirt, and spewed forth from the mouths of every cable news celebrity who thinks they’re a “journalist”. Suzanne Mettler and John Sides compiled data from a 2008 national survey by the Cornell Survey Research Institute:
[The survey] asked Americans whether they had ever taken advantage of any of 21 social policies provided by the federal government, from student loans to Medicare. These policies do not include government activity that benefits everyone — national defense, the interstate highway system, food safety regulations — but only tangible benefits that accrue to specific households.
The survey asked about people’s policy usage throughout their lives, not just at a moment in time, and it included questions about social policies embedded in the tax code, which are usually overlooked.
What the data reveal is striking: nearly all Americans — 96 percent — have relied on the federal government to assist them.
Just let that sink in.
And lest you surmise that the remaining 4% are the Übermenschen Job Creators of Ayn Rand’s fervid fantasies:
Young adults, who are not yet eligible for many policies, account for most of the remaining 4 percent.
Oh, and it wasn’t “just that one time,” either:
On average, people reported that they had used five social policies at some point in their lives.
In their analysis, the authors break down federal government social polices into two types: “direct” (such as Social Security payments) and “submerged” (such as the home mortgage interest tax deduction). They are correct to note that the social benefits submerged in the tax code may be camouflaged, but in every meaningful way they are exactly like direct benefits: they subsidize housing, health care, retirement and college.
The data are also broken down by political ideology, revealing some interesting contrasts:
Overall, 82 percent of Democrats and 64 percent of Republicans acknowledged receipt of at least one direct social benefit. More Republicans (92 percent) than Democrats (86 percent) had taken advantage of submerged policies. Once we take both types of policies into account, the seeming distinction between makers and takers vanishes: 97 percent of Republicans and 98 percent of Democrats report that they have used at least one government social policy.
So when Mitt Romney made his infamous “47%” comment, apparently he vastly understated the number of Americans who “believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing” — and whom he will never convince to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
It turns out that includes virtually all of us.
As my Many Tens of Loyal Readers™ well know, due to conservatives’ well-documented cognitive deficiencies they tend to be wrong about pretty much everything that matters. Especially reality. To wit:
Where Americans actually differ is in how they think about government’s role in their lives. A major driving factor here is ideology: conservatives were less likely than liberals to respond affirmatively when asked if they had ever used a “government social program,” even when both subsequently acknowledged using the same number of specific policies.
Not. Surprising. At. All. It’s the Bootstrap Delusion.
The authors conclude:
Throughout our lives, almost all of us help sustain government social policies through our tax dollars and, at some point, almost all of us directly benefit from these policies. Because ideology influences how we view our own and others’ use of government, Mr. Romney’s remarks may resonate with those who think of themselves as “producers” rather than “moochers” — to use Ayn Rand’s distinction. But this distinction fails to capture the way Americans really experience government. Instead of dividing us, our experiences as both makers and takers ought to bind us in a community of shared sacrifice and mutual support.
Yes, our experiences as both makers and takers ought to bind us in a community of shared sacrifice and mutual support. And yet that is manifestly not the case. That is because the American “divide” about the size and role of government is based on a delusion.
We are the 96%.