The More Americans Benefit from the Safety Net, the More They Hate It

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It has become one of the great paradoxes of American life that those who depend the most on government assistance are also the ones most likely to call for reduced government spending. A long, but compelling story in The New York Times on Sunday looked at several people who take advantage of government programs, but still wish those programs weren't there. 

Perhaps it's more a desire to not have to use the government safety net that drives those concerns. The people profiled in the story are not painted as hypocrites, but instead are conflicted (and occasionally ashamed) about taking handouts. Yet, they have to take them in order to survive. According to the Times, nearly half of all American households received some sort of government benefits in 2010. Also, the share of benefits being paid to the poorest Americans is shrinking, as more and more middle class families get caught in that net.  One of the men mentioned in the story, says he's concerned that America is destroying itself financially, but admits that he couldn't survive without its benefits. (He receives the earned-income tax credit and his three children are enrolled in federal school lunch programs.)

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Lowering government spending has long been a major concern for conservatives and Republicans (and even a lot of moderates on both sides. But the challenge is that the programs most likely to strain public finances — Medicare and Social Security — are also the hardest to cut. The evidence isn't just anecdotal either. Research shows that states that take in more money than they pay out in taxes, are the ones most likely to vote for candidates who promise to slash that spending.

But Dean P. Lacy, a professor of political science at Dartmouth College, has identified a twist on that theme in American politics over the last generation. Support for Republican candidates, who generally promise to cut government spending, has increased since 1980 in states where the federal government spends more than it collects. The greater the dependence, the greater the support for Republican candidates.

As the president unveils his budget proposal this week, these struggles are thrown into relief. Everyone agrees that big social programs are popular and necessary, but we must acknowledge the burden they place on our finances. No one wants higher taxes, but no one wants to lose the benefits they've come to rely on. The politics makes the economics more difficult, which only makes the political divisions greater. Until we can square this circle — a seemingly impossible task for Washington, particularly in an election year — this great tug of war isn't going away.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.