Political scientists Suzanne Mettler and John Sides provide the numbers that debunk the Romney view that 53% of the population are hardworking, independent, and proudly individualistic “makers,” while the other 47% are lazy moochers and “takers” dependent on government largesse. The study looked at 21 social policies provided by the federal government from student loans, to Social Security and Medicare.
What the data reveal is striking: nearly all Americans—96 percent—have relied on the federal government to assist them. Young adults, who are not yet eligible for many policies, account for most of the remaining 4 percent.
On average, people reported that they had used five social policies at some point in their lives. An individual typically had received two direct social benefits in the form of checks, goods or services paid for by government, like Social Security or unemployment insurance. Most had also benefited from three policies in which government’s role was “submerged,” meaning that it was channeled through the tax code or private organizations, like the home mortgage-interest deduction and the tax-free status of the employer contribution to employees’ health insurance. The design of these policies camouflages the fact that they are social benefits, too, just like the direct benefits that help Americans pay for housing, health care, retirement and college.
The use of government social policies cuts across partisan divides. Some policies were used more often by members of one party or the other. Republicans were more likely to have used the G.I. Bill and Social Security retirement and survivors’ benefits, while more Democrats had taken advantage of Medicaid and unemployment insurance. 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.
The majority of individuals from households at every income level have used at least one direct social policy. Low-income people have used more of the direct policies than have the affluent: the average household with income under $10,000 per year used four of them, compared to only one by the households at $150,000 and above. But the proportions were reversed in the case of the submerged policies: wealthy families had typically used three of them, and the poor just one.
The researchers avoided federal policies and programs that benefit everyone and chose only to look at programs that benefited individuals or families. But, it’s important for Romney and Ryan and all the government haters out there to admit that they benefit, on a daily basis, from the Food & Drug Administration’s regulation of food and drugs, from the Postal Service delivering their mail, and the EPA keeping their air and water cleaner. And that’s just a small sample of what government does for them.