Political Animal


February 12, 2012 9:45 AM The Safety Net is Getting Wider and Tougher To Remove

By Jesse Singal

There’s a very interesting article in today’s New York Times:

There is little poverty here in Chisago County, northeast of Minneapolis, where cheap housing for commuters is gradually replacing farmland. But Mr. Gulbranson and many other residents who describe themselves as self-sufficient members of the American middle class and as opponents of government largess are drawing more deeply on that government with each passing year.
Dozens of benefits programs provided an average of $6,583 for each man, woman and child in the county in 2009, a 69 percent increase from 2000 after adjusting for inflation. In Chisago, and across the nation, the government now provides almost $1 in benefits for every $4 in other income.
Older people get most of the benefits, primarily through Social Security and Medicare, but aid for the rest of the population has increased about as quickly through programs for the disabled, the unemployed, veterans and children.
The government safety net was created to keep Americans from abject poverty, but the poorest households no longer receive a majority of government benefits. A secondary mission has gradually become primary: maintaining the middle class from childhood through retirement. The share of benefits flowing to the least affluent households, the bottom fifth, has declined from 54 percent in 1979 to 36 percent in 2007, according to a Congressional Budget Office analysis published last year.

The article gives a pretty good sense of the practical political difficulties of dislodging this or that aspect of the safety net. Whatever peoples’ political beliefs, it is very difficult to take away from them a piece of government largess to which they have grown accustomed. “Get your government hands of my Medicare” and all that.

That’s why most of the successful attempts to slice up the safety net have taken one of two forms: cuts to programs whose recipients are underrepresented and not particularly politically organized, and indirect future cutting in the form of tax cuts (that is, push through an unaffordable tax cut and then claim five or ten years later that budget concerns dictate we just have to cut the social safety net).

The Times piece also brought to mind one of my favorite recent political science studies, which I’d been looking for an excuse to blog about anyway. Most of the people quoted in the article seem to know that they are receiving government help (and they often feel conflicted about that fact), but this isn’t always the norm: Last year Cornell political scientist Suzanne Mettler found that many Americans who receive government assistance aren’t aware of that fact — 44.1% of Social Security recipients, for example, said that they don’t receive a government benefit.

Henry Farrell summed up the ramifications of this quite nicely:

Mettler’s basic argument is that because the US welfare state is ‘submerged’ and sliced up among a variety of different programs, many of which operate indirectly rather than directly, it is mostly invisible to US citizens. This has obvious political consequences - ‘government social programs’ are equated to ‘welfare’ and stigmatized. The fact that nearly half of Social Security recipients do not believe that they have benefited from a government social program, and that the same is true of some 40% of G.I. Bill beneficiaries and Medicare recipients is a rather extraordinary one.

Will this change as a result of the upward expansion of these sorts of programs? Dunno, but Americans don’t have a great track record of understanding how government works and how it connects the private to the public, so I wouldn’t hold my breath.

UPDATE: Didn’t realize that Mettler wrote about this stuff in the pages of this very magazine over the summer — definitely check out her article.

CORRECTION: I originally stated incorrectly that the article was in yesterday’s Times, but it’s on the front page of today’s. Mea culpa.

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.


  • theAmericanist on February 12, 2012 10:08 AM:

    This is an old argument that has largely gone past progressives, who tend to be intellectual rather than tribal about politics.

    Chris Matthews told a story (in the book Hardball) about it -- just before he went to work on Congressional staff, they made COLA increases automatic. As a young progressive (he had run for Congress himself and lost in 1974), he was all for it -- but he talked to an old Representative, a veteran of many campaign victories, who explained why it was stoooopid: before automatic COLAs, he said, we'd go a year or two and the benefits would shrink in real terms, so we'd introduce a bill that would increase them to match or maybe even get a little ahead, and Republicans would oppose it. We'd argue over that for a month or two, maybe get into the summer of an election year, then we'd have a knock-down, drag-out fight about the increase, and finally about six weeks before the election we'd barely pass an increase that would be good for two, maybe three years. And we'd keep marginal seats, and even win some new ones, because everybody would know who was on the side of people who really needed that increase. It didn't matter if it was Social Security or the minimum wage -- that's how self-government is supposed to work.

    But, hey, progressives sure got rid of THAT nonsense, huh?

  • c u n d gulag on February 12, 2012 10:12 AM:

    Red States should be called Black States, and Blue States ought to be called Red States, instead.

    The Blue State's taxpayers have to go "into the red" to make sure the other states stay in the black.

    Besides, "red" was the color of Communist countries, so we Coastal Elites, and Mid-Western Rust-beltsocialists, should be used to it by now.

  • berttheclock on February 12, 2012 10:13 AM:

    One portion of the safety net rarely mentioned is state property tax deferral for the elderly. This has helped keep many in their own homes. In Oregon, this was taken from many, but, the legislature is working on replacing the needed deferral.

  • berttheclock on February 12, 2012 10:19 AM:

    Funny thing about COLA is how it was affected once oil and food were taken out of the inflation equation. The claim was they were cylical forgetting when oil prices increase there is a massive ripple effect into production, shipping and those price increases never drop back. They even affect the cost of food, but, seniors were told for what, three years, that there was no increase in inflation? Of course, as seniors rarely eat, rarely buy fuel for their non-existent vehicles and never purchase anything, what did it really matter?

  • nemisten on February 12, 2012 10:37 AM:

    Another government handout -- rarely considered a handout -- is the homeowners interest deduction, which overwhelmingly favors the rich and middle-class. (And I say this as one who is receiving it...not rich, but certainly middle class.)

  • Grumpy on February 12, 2012 10:37 AM:

    This is ironclad proof of either A) that Democrats will someday make every voter dependent on government, B) that Democrats have been trying this but it just doesn't work, or C) that the whole "government moochers vote for Democrats" theory is bogus.

  • Rip on February 12, 2012 10:47 AM:

    Conservatives spend a generation kneecapping the middle class in the name of supply-side laissez-faire capitalism, and then complain about the government providing crutches.

  • Josef K on February 12, 2012 10:49 AM:

    From theAmericanist at 10:08 AM:

    But, hey, progressives sure got rid of THAT nonsense, huh?

    Did you have an actual point here?

  • Raenelle on February 12, 2012 10:50 AM:

    Divide and conquer. Take the benefits away bit by bit. That's all they have to do. That's exactly what they've been doing.

  • theAmericanist on February 12, 2012 10:53 AM:

    Grumpy, that's not quite right.

    This is about self-government.

    When the first three words of the Constitution decide they want the home mortgage deduction, or to defer property taxes for the elderly, that's an honest expression of self-interest. That's what self-government is FOR, after all.

    One of the great flaws on the Left is the idea that self-government is supposed to be selfless, that there is something distasteful, even immoral, about people voting for their own interests.

    Fritz Hollings (a New South Democratic governor and Senator from South Carolina, ran for President once) had a stump speech where he defined Reagan Democrats as people who did their homework by lights provided by the New Deal, were educated on the GI bill, drove to work on the interstate highway system, then retired on Social Security to be kept alive by Medicare so that they could vote for people who opposed every one of those things.

    But it's not THEIR fault if progressives never show 'em who serves their interests.

    You guys can never quite figure out the connection between folks who can't hear how Democrats and progressives built the middle class, and the way progressives constantly try to shout down values voters on issues that don't matter, like forcing Catholic hospitals to either violate doctrine, serve only Catholic, or close.

  • theAmericanist on February 12, 2012 11:00 AM:

    "issues that don't matter".... really should've re-thought that: more like "unnecessary fights".

    Josef K: you really don't get the point?

    Ralph Nader his own self epitomized progressive distaste for self-government to me once, years ago, when I was pushing one of my personal causes: expanding US representation beyond 435 (on the principle that actually forced the Revolution, that population compels representation.)

    He shocked me (I was young and innocent) by saying he wanted fewer Representatives in Congress -- that way, he explained, it would be easier to keep an eye on 'em, and to run the country by (I swear he said this) street demonstrations and lawsuits.

    Pretty much sums up everything that is wrong with progressives: politics motivated by intellect rather than loyalty -- to causes, to communities, to candidates.

    That's why progressives were so happy to embrace automatic COLAs -- it made so much intellectual sense, and has probably cost us 100 seats in the House and two dozen Senators over the years.

  • Gandalf on February 12, 2012 11:06 AM:

    Don't worry Joseph Americanist will inevitably get to his point from the viewpoint of his lofty perch. The problem is as always his point is always the same . That is that he's teh allknowing eye and that his opinion is the word.

  • theAmericanist on February 12, 2012 11:35 AM:

    Ah, Gandalf: you've made me curious to plumb the depths of your dumbassitude.

    Jesse posted that the NYT has reported (in a truly amazing graph, btw, an astonishing amount of data just moving the cursor around) that the safety net is invisible and durable, noting that many people receive "government assistance", but don't know it -- which of course has a political effect when these folks vote against their own interests, in turn begging the question just how durable it will prove over time.

    So I pointed out this is a result of the progressive disease, in which politics is intellectual rather than tribal. I gave an example, how cost of living increases used to be prolonged political fights in Congress, in which those who fought for increases were rewarded, and those who fought against them were punished, by winning or losing elections.

    Going too fast for you, Gandalf?

    See (as I pointed out in re-telling an old Chris Matthews story), progressives decided that AUTOMATIC cost of living increases were better. That way, nobody could get credit for them -- and I noted that this has cost maybe 100 House seats and a couple dozen Senators over the years.

    Where Jesse is just amazed at new data demonstrating that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west EVERY FRIGGING DAY, I pointed out this is an old argument that has largely escaped the notice of progressives -- because their politics tend to be intellectual, rather than tribal. The actual business of winning elections by identifying candidates with the self-interest of voters is somehow icky to progressives.

    That's why progressives -- gee, like you, Gandalf -- tend not to understand why voters don't hear their self-interest, when their values are shouted down in pointless arguments, e.g. over the role of religion in public life.

    (puzzled) You really don't get this? I mean, I was pretty sure you were dumb, but...

  • Tom Marney on February 12, 2012 11:38 AM:

    I'm working in a rural area of Georgia now, and I'm struck by the seeming depth of resentment of the dominant local right wingers toward [i]people in their own community[/i] who receive government benefits. It isn't even strictly racial, since the area is overwhelmingly white. And these people aren't sophisticated enough to realize that doing what Republican leaders say they'll do would devastate not just the national economy but the local ones as well.

  • waddanut on February 12, 2012 11:44 AM:

    "The fact that nearly half of Social Security recipients do not believe that they have benefited from a government social program"

    Part of the reason for this is for someone who has worked their entire working life contributing to the social security and medicare systems, we tend to look at it as an earned benefit not as a "government giveaway". I'm just getting my money back that's due to me.

    Thirty and more years ago responsible companies provided a pension for their workers and laws discouraged individual retirement investments. Many pensions were designed to provide a "retirement income" for about a year.

    One of my supervisors worked for the same company for over forty years with the promise of a "generous pension". When the time came, the generous was about a years income because the companies plan was to force retirees on SS and take the burden off of them.

    And now, with many companies shorting on pension investment obligations, social security is more important than ever.

  • Graychin on February 12, 2012 11:45 AM:

    This is the essential Republican conundrum. How can we get people to hate the government if we allow the government to do good things?

    Their present answer: class warfare against the most disadvantaged classes. Demonizing immigrants, legal and otherwise. Demonizing food stamp recipients and the long-term unemployed. Building resentment against the one-half of Americans who "don't pay any taxes."

  • MuddyLee on February 12, 2012 12:03 PM:

    Something interesting to me is that fairly frequently I get email forwards from a conservative friend complaining that Obama or Pelosi or some other evil democrat has called Social Security a government "benefit" when it's something hard working Americans have PAID FOR. When I point out that his children benefit from lottery scholarships or the home mortgage deduction that non-college non-homeowners don't get there's never any acknowledgement that these things are just "food stamps" for the middle class (but somehow OK nonetheless).

  • berttheclock on February 12, 2012 12:10 PM:

    @waddanut, as for that "government giveaway" of Social Security. Robert Samuelson, the so-called "economist" for the WaPo, who as a right winger has written reams that Social Security for the most part is a "government giveaway" as most people receive more than they ever paid into the system. My wife was given a lecture at our local Portland SSA office by an agent that she and many others should just be happy with whatever is paid as few have ever paid more than they receive. No, she did not report him as it is not wise to rock the boats at SSA.

    Samuelson refers to those of us drawing our SSA electronic transfers as being on welfare. Many on the right believe this to be true.

  • theAmericanist on February 12, 2012 12:24 PM:

    Um -- as a matter of arithmetic, it IS true.

    Your basic Boomer who started work at 20 in 1970 and retires in 2015 at 65 (ease of arithmetic) has been paying (counting the employer part) about 15% into the system. Doing severe violence to the #s for ease of arithmetic, the average salary in the 70s was about 10k a year, in the 80s it went to 20, in the 90s to 25, and call it 40 (since Boomers are so hardworking and savings-oriented) in the last 20 years. That's a total career income of about $1.25 million, of which 15% is (more fudging) about 200 grand.

    At $1,600 a month (not counting Medicare!), that's gone in a dozen years or less. Throw in Medicare costs, it's gone in five. The average Boomer life expectancy AT 65 is 15 years for men, and nearly 20 for women.

    Do the math.

    The 'we earned it' argument is emotionally powerful, but the arithmetic doesn't work.

  • jim filyaw on February 12, 2012 12:33 PM:

    its impossible to read that article and not be astonished at the mind blowing stupidity and inability to grasp the obvious by voters who for the most part will be living under bridges if the people they put in office ever get their way. in the midst of my kneejerk tendency to roundly damn these working class 'conservatives', i remind myself that dubya would have been a footnote to history had it not been for ralph nader and the arugula loving liberals who put him in office and our country in dire straits. moral: stupidity has no political preference.

  • jim filyaw on February 12, 2012 12:49 PM:

    btw: (re: comment by theamericanist)

    the math doesn't work and won't as long as we swallow the b.s. that this country can't afford a decent universal healthcare system. once we get past that, the system will work fine. but, i've a math question for you. once medicare is eliminated, what happens to the medical bill? does the great and wonderful free market god deliver us? its not like most of us are going to be let in on the conservative welfare system that awards former right wing shills (regenery press, fox news, wingnut think tanks, etc.) the so-called math conundrum you pose is nothing new. we had nearly two hundred years experience of letting you guys have your shot. zippo, nada. in other words, we've been there and done that.

  • Anonymous on February 12, 2012 12:51 PM:

    I think that we are agreeing with each other. My point was supposed to be, the general perception of the social security system by the older recipients is the "I paid in to it, I deserve to get it back". Reality of how it actually works not withstanding.

    @berttheclock, "Samuelson refers to those of us drawing our SSA electronic transfers as being on welfare. Many on the right believe this to be true."

    And many on the right are collecting this "welfare" with the attitude "I got mine, screw you"

    I've been on permanent disability for a while now. SSA and Medicare has literately been a lifesaver. I don't consider it as welfare, but as a retirement benefit contractually obligated by the government from the first paycheck a premium was deducted. And when the first tax was deducted I was promised that this benefit would last the rest of my life after I started to collect it.

    I don't see receiving SSA any different than someone buying a life insurance policy for a million dollars and dieing five years later. The heirs get the million even though nowhere close to the million was paid to the insurance co..

  • theAmericanist on February 12, 2012 1:03 PM:

    This has been America's biggest political problem (with heartfelt apologies to the Civil Rights Movement) since we killed Jim Crow. That's why Hollings' stump speech was so telling, even though it didn't make him President, which Lawrence O'Donnell just reprised in a popular graphic.

    It's also why I post as theAmericanist around here: I don't think the Right is so powerful or persuasive. I think the Left is dumb. We have by far the better arguments and do a much better job representing the interests of most Americans -- so what other explanation can there be that we're not solving problems, but that we're too myopic and solipsistic and abstract to get out of our own way?

  • SYSPROG on February 12, 2012 1:04 PM:

    A couple of things...first off, thanx for the article. I have long been mad about the Boomers voting against education when they received education assistance in the form of subsidies when THEY were going to school. Secondly, ah Americanist you like to blame the 'progressives' for absolutely EVERYTHING and make simplistic arguments and call them the end all and be all. On SS yes you are correct. Salaries were less in previous decades so 15% was less than it was in the nineties. BUT you don't take into account the stock market. Everyone ELSE does but you don't. These funds are invested so it's not JUST 15%. You also don't take into account that MORE people pay into SS in the nineties than in the seventies...oh yes at the HIGHER salary. You just want to show those progressive 'grifters'. Oh and BTW it's not just PROGRESSIVES that get SS. AND if SS was in a 'lockbox' like that famous progressive Al Gore talked about, the 'other party' would not be able to raid it and then talk about it going broke when they decide they don't want to pay it back.

  • theAmericanist on February 12, 2012 1:29 PM:

    Social security payments are invested in the stock market? Who knew?

  • Kelly on February 12, 2012 2:11 PM:

    theAmericanist The math that matters to me is the burden to the US economy. Please see http://www.ssa.gov/oact/TRSUM/index.html. They project Social Security rising from about 4.5% to about 6.25% of GDP over the next 25 years. I'm confident we can find another 1.75% of GDP for elderly and disabled. We have plenty of time.

  • jrosen on February 12, 2012 3:01 PM:

    Americanist: (what a megalomaniac choice for a name, BTW), I dod the same calculation for myself. I started paying in in 1958 and stopped in 1999. I estimated my earnings 9which varied greatly), and assumed 6% from me and 6% from my employer(s). Also I assumed a growth rate of the deposits as 4%, compounded. (This was a fun way to use my new math program Mathematica). The result was that I accrued enough to take out my benefits for 21 years total, of which I have used 12, giving me 9 more, at which point I will be 81.

    I don't know if this is typical (probably not) but it seems fair enough. If you regard SS not as a pension, but as insurance, it works even better. Since the benefits stop whenever the subject dies, leaving aside survivors (who don't get much), the people who die before they take out their accrued benefits subsidize the ones who outlive theirs. I would guess that this evens out pretty well. Just the way (like me) people who pay auto insurance premiums but rarely make claims subsidize more careless (or unlucky) drivers who do.

    I also have part of my SS benefits taken out for Medicare premiums, so that is not a freebie either.

  • schtick on February 12, 2012 3:38 PM:

    Mebbe it would help if our lovely government would quit giving welfare to the oil barons and big business. Might be a little more to swing over to the elderly or disabled. Might even make a difference if they quit lying about how much that upper 20% actually pays in taxes. They have so many loopholes you can drive a truck through them. You know, like having their friends and relatives give them all the receipts they ever get going to dinner, including McD's, to declare as business lunches/dinner. Too bad us leeches on society don't get little breaks like that.

  • theAmericanist on February 12, 2012 3:58 PM:

    Jrosen: oy, the meaning of the monicker again -- "theAmericanist" denotes the Americanist heresy, the only one that originated here ever to be formally condemned by the Vatican. Shortly after 9/11, like every other writer in America I studied up on Islam -- in my case, partly for an article that I wrote for a conservative magazine (which wouldn't run it cuz it didn't condemn Islam and told the Church's history int he US accurately) on "the Americanization of Islam". An old friend of mine named Larry Fuchs, emeritus at Brandeis, told me that Islam in America was actually following the Catholic path in the 19th century. I had never heard of the Americanist heresy -- no wonder, the Church sort of stuffed it in the memory hold -- so I studied up on it: the essence of "Americanism" is the idea that civics has a moral value in itself.

    I thought -- gee, that's me.

    On your point -- you sort of epitomize the offhand but lasting zebrathink that characterized FDR's explanation for Social Security, which eventually became the theory behind Medicare. On the one hand, it's a national pension plan -- you and I and everybody else pays into it, exactly the way we would pay into a private pension plan or for that matter, our own savings and investments. Even from this distance, you can see why trusting retirement money to the full faith and credit of the US government would have enormous appeal to Depression folks who had just seen their life savings evaporate in the private sector.

    OTOH, it's a social insurance plan: a guaranteed minimum income for the elderly, no matter how much or how little we've earned at retirement, nor how long we live.

    The thing is, those aren't the same -- black AND white stripes, it looks like a horse but it's not.

    One reason progressives (and Democrats) have historically resisted means testing Social Security benefits is because that WOULD turn it into a welfare program -- you only get it if you need it. FDR refused to consider Social Security that way from the very beginning, because his vision was much broader: EVERYBODY pays, and EVERYBODY benefits.

    But Social Security isn't a white horse, either. The black stripes were there from the start, too -- if you've earned more, you get more (up to a point), while if you've earned little or nothing (as was true for many more women back in the day), you get a different kind of benefit -- SSI, which really is welfare.

    'Course, Social Security was never FUNDED as a national pension plan (despite SYSPROG's delusion that the money is invested on Wall Street -- they wish), where your 12% or my 15% buys Treasuries that are kept at Fort Knox or somewhere to be cashed in as if they were ordinary investments. People paying into the system now fund the benefits of people receiving checks.

    In that sense, it functions as social insurance -- which is why the politics have always been so sticky. But the zebrathink doesn't help: it's not a horse, it's not all black and it's not all white.

    And the sumbitch bites and kicks.

  • pluege on February 12, 2012 5:41 PM:

    it is foolish to think republicans want to take away government largess from the rich and middle class, i.e., the majority of voters. Their target is the people that need it most: the poor and the disadvantaged, which are also the least likely to vote.

    the republican effort has never been to eliminate government largesse - the effort is to redirect it as they have done with the military industrial complex. Hence:

    * welfare for big corporations
    * privatization of prisons and public education
    * privatization of social security (this isn't to eliminate SS, its to get the trillions of dollars into the greedy little mits of Wall Street)

  • theAmericanist on February 12, 2012 6:10 PM:

    Pluege: "privatizing" Social Security IS eliminating it.

    (And you guys wonder why I am harsh?)

  • Doug on February 12, 2012 7:19 PM:

    "(And you guys wonder why I am harsh?)" tA @ 6:10 PM

    No tA, we don't wonder why you're "harsh", we know THAT.
    It's that we don't care.

  • rover27 on February 12, 2012 10:09 PM:

    I have to say, my dear progressive friends, theAmericanist is eating your lunch on this board on logic, common sense, and points.