Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Why the U.S. has a culture of dependency

By Matthew Spalding, Special to CNN
updated 5:44 PM EDT, Fri September 21, 2012
A young man waits to apply for food stamps at the Cooperative Feeding Program in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in February 2011.
A young man waits to apply for food stamps at the Cooperative Feeding Program in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in February 2011.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Matthew Spalding: U.S. social welfare programs are creating a vast culture of dependency
  • He says the welfare state removes the stigma from taking government support
  • He says longtime recipients lose work habits and jobs skills
  • Spalding: The U.S. must require work for assistance and better target poverty programs

Editor's note: Matthew Spalding is vice president of American Studies and director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.

(CNN) -- For most of American history, the average farmer, shop owner or entrepreneur could live an entire life without getting anything from the federal government except mail service. But those days have gone the way of the Pony Express.

Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that 49% of the population lives in a household where at least one person gets some type of government benefit. The Heritage Foundation's annual Index of Dependence on Government tracks government spending and creates a weighted score adjusted for inflation of federal programs that contribute to dependency. It reports that in 2010, 67.3 million Americans received either Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Social Security, support for higher education or other assistance once considered to be the responsibility of individuals, families, neighborhoods, churches, and other civil society institutions -- an 8% increase from the year before.

Matthew Spalding
Matthew Spalding

These people aren't necessarily dependent on government; many could live (even live well) without their Social Security check, Pell grant or crop subsidy. That's not the point. The problem is that Washington is building a culture of dependency, with ever-more people relying on an ever-growing federal government to give them cash or benefits.

This is a growing and dangerous trend. The United States thrives because of a culture of opportunity that encourages work and disdains relying on handouts. The growth of the welfare state, a confusing alphabet soup of programs that are supposed to help low-income Americans make ends meet and do not include entitlements such as Social Security or Medicare, is turning us into a land where many expect, and see no stigma attached to, drawing regular financial support from the federal government.

Opinion: Americans are not moochers

What did Romney mean by 'those people?'
Who Romney's 47% really are
Romney defends his '47%' comment
Woodward: Romney is dissing the base

Consider means-tested social welfare programs. The federal government operates at least 69 programs that provide assistance deliberately and exclusively to poor and lower-income people. The benefits include cash, food, housing, medical care and social services.

Yet when poverty expert Robert Rector, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, examined these anti-poverty programs, he found that only two, the earned income tax credit and the additional child refundable credit, require recipients to actually work for their benefits. It had been three, but earlier this year, the Obama administration effectively set aside the most well-known welfare work requirements, those specifically written into the 1996 Temporary Assistance to Needy Families law. The Department of Health and Human Services announced that states could apply for a waiver of the law's clearly stated work requirements.

Meanwhile, although spending on welfare has been cut in half since it was reformed in 1996, other federal spending on programs, such as food stamps, has soared year after year and decade after decade. Simply put, spending on social welfare programs has exploded.

CNNMoney: The poor do have jobs

Under a culture of dependency, poverty becomes a trap, and recipients get stuck. Long-term welfare recipients lose work habits and job skills and miss out on the marketplace contacts that lead to job opportunities. That's a key reason the government should require welfare recipients to work as much as they can. What could be called "workfare" thus tends to increase long-term earnings among potential recipients.

Another problem is that we simply can't afford all this spending.

The national debt is at $16 trillion, more than the entire GDP of the United States last year. High as it is, that debt is about to soar. More than 78 million baby boomers are retiring onto Social Security and Medicare in the next 15 years or so. Under Obamacare, Medicaid is set to explode as well. Within just one generation, total federal spending could reach nearly 36% of GDP, and the Congressional Budget Office says debt held by the public could reach nearly 200% of GDP.

That will crowd out virtually all other government spending, including national defense. Future Congresses could impose deep cuts in social welfare programs across the board or raise massive taxes to support these exploding programs. The results would be chaotic and unpredictable.

News: Romney remarks: Plain truth or huge mistake?

It doesn't have to be this way.

We can reduce dependency on government and focus benefits on those who are truly needy. For example, by including work requirements and promoting marriage (being raised in a married family significantly reduces a child's chances of being in poverty), we'll help rekindle the American Dream for everyone.

All poverty programs should be reviewed to make certain they're helping people instead of harming them. Social welfare programs should help people up, not hold them down.

Follow CNN Opinion on Twitter.

Join the conversation on Facebook.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Matthew Spalding.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT