7 Facts About Government Benefits and Who Gets Them

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Six in seven households have received some sort of government benefit, according to a new survey from Pew Research Center. Here are some highlights from the report, plus some extra bits of context. These graphs focus on government spending, as opposed to tax benefits -- such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and the lower rate on investment income -- which can also be considered forms of "government assistance," since a dollar not taxed can perform a similar role to a dollar spent.
 
1. The big picture is bigger than 'the 47%.' Fully 55% of all Americans -- including a majority of those self-identifying as Democrats, Republicans, liberals, moderates, and conservatives -- have received benefits from one of these six federal programs: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare (TANF), unemployment benefits, and food stamps (SNAP).

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2. ... Actually, it's more than the 70%.  If you broaden to households rather than individuals: "71% of adults are part of a household that has benefited" from at least one of those six programs.

3. In fact, it's the 86%. After you add veteran benefits and college assistance, 70% of individuals -- and 86% of households -- receive a government benefit of some kind. Put differently, one in seven households doesn't receive assistance from the federal government.

Screen Shot 2012-12-18 at 1.59.00 PM.png5. Not just for the old. Most benefits are spent on the elderly, through Social Security and Medicare, and nearly every household with an adult over 65 receives federal benefits of some kind. But perhaps the most common benefit available -- unemployment benefits -- can help Americans as young as teenagers. From the report: "The use of entitlement begins at an early age for many Americans, the survey finds. A third (33%) of all adults ages 18 to 29 say they have received at least one major entitlement payment or service in their lives."


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6. Food Stamps are bigger than you think. You might not guess it from the relative attention paid to each program, but there are nearly as many people on Food Stamps (SNAP) as there are on Medicare.

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7. But nothing's bigger than Social Security ... for now. Although Medicare and Medicaid are projected to grow faster than Social Security in the next ten (and, especially, twenty) years, SS is still the biggest benefit program from the federal government.

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4. The demographic breakdown. Federal assistance is more likely to go to women than men (61% vs. 49%); to blacks than whites or Hispanics (64% vs. 56% vs. 50%); and to rural residents than urban or suburban (62% vs. 54% vs. 53%).

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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