Make no mistake about it, the heart of the current (and future) financial crisis lay with entitlements, or what some deem "federal benefits." Though many point to the collapse of mortgage-backed securities and the real estate market as triggering the Great Recession, ultimately we are where we are as a result of far too much debt in the U.S. economy. In other words, as the current debate over the debt ceiling illustrates, ours is a crisis of debt.
Very early in our marriage, my wife and I learned a valuable and simple lesson when it comes to managing money: how to live on budget. As I have written before, upon making an early commitment never again to be in debt, we have lived the last 12 years of our 131/2-year marriage completely debt free. This includes owning our home, cars, (along with having four children) and so on. Our budget discipline played a huge role in achieving this tremendous financial freedom.
Of course, any American with an intellectual capacity greater than that of fans of Jersey Shore understands the lack of budget discipline that has plagued Washington for decades. One statistic stands out above all others as an illustration of the fiscal folly perpetuated by the federal government: According to the U.S. census in 2009, nearly 139 million Americans, more than 46 percent, received at least one federal benefit.
Included in these numbers: 46.5 million received Social Security; 42.6 million Medicare; 42.4 million Medicaid; 36.1 million food stamps; 22.2 million WIC; 12.4 million housing subsidies; and 6.1 million unemployment. The United States has created an unprecedented culture of dependency.
Sadly, far too many Americans are content with our current welfare state. A recent Wall St Journal-NBC News poll reveals that fewer than 25 percent of Americans favor cutbacks to Social Security or Medicare to reduce the federal deficit. As the Journal noted, "Even tea party supporters, by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, declared significant cuts to Social Security ‘unacceptable.'"
For another illustration of how numerous Americans are willing to take us even further down our debt hole, last year, when President Barack Obama spoke to an audience of college students on the subject of health care, he declared that the students will now be able to remain on their parents' health insurance plan until age 26. Upon hearing this, columnist Dennis Prager noted, "I do not ever recall hearing a louder, more thunderous and sustained applause than I did then. I do not believe that if the president had announced that a cure for cancer had been discovered that the applause would have been louder or longer."
The Heritage Foundation's 2010 Index of Dependence on Government, which "is designed to measure the pace at which federal government services and programs have grown in areas in which private or community-based services and programs exist or existed to address the same or similar needs," had a 2009 measure of 272. In 1990 it was 123. In 1962 it was 19. Thus, in about 50 years, according to this Index, dependence on the federal government has grown by more than 1,300 percent.Republicans and Democrats alike — in other words most Americans — are to blame for the monstrosity that is the U.S. federal government. We like to point fingers, but the sad truth of the matter is that, by and large, our government is simply a reflection of its citizenry. Far too many Americans have decided to look to government to provide for them, with far too few understanding the real price of such a relationship.
"Every form of refuge has its price," sang the Eagles' Glen Frey in 1975. The line is from the Eagles' hit song "Lyin' Eyes." Don Henley and Frey wrote the song about a beautiful woman who (seemingly) marries a "rich old man" so "she won't have to worry." However, though she has many of the finer things in life, she finds herself rather unfulfilled.
It is time for America to realize the price of having our government provide us with so much. It is a price that we literally cannot afford. To roll things back will not be painless; however, as President Grover Cleveland (a Democrat) noted, "It is the responsibility of citizens to support their government. It is not the responsibility of government to support its citizens."
Trevor Thomas is a Gainesville resident and frequent columnist.