June 30, 2005

June 30, 2005 | Commentary on

The Rise in Dependency

Is the American tradition of self-reliance disappearing?

That's a painful question for conservatives to ponder. After all, we're dedicated to reducing the role of government and promoting individual freedom and opportunity. But the facts, while sad, are clear: More Americans today depend more heavily on government than ever before.

We've long sensed that was true, but now we have proof. Recently, The Heritage Foundation created an objective measure called the Index of Dependency, and it paints a frightening picture. Since 1980 -- the year that Ronald Reagan's election seemed to signal a coming shift in public policy -- our reliance on government has doubled.

The Index tracks five main categories of government programs -- housing, health care, retirement, education and farm subsidies. In each category, the federal government's role has grown in recent years. That growth has crowded out more traditional support structures such as churches, families and local charities.

For example, before World War II, Americans of modest means usually got their health care and health insurance through community institutions and fraternal organizations. But insurance through those groups is long gone, replaced by publicly provided health care through Medicare and Medicaid.

Meanwhile Social Security, set up to provide a retirement income floor, is the main source of support for most retirees. And various government programs now provide much or all of the income in poor households.

It's time to ask whether we've reached a national crisis. As Heritage economist William Beach, points out, "A citizenry that reaches a certain tipping point in dependency on government runs the risk of evolving into a society that demands an ever-expanding government that caters to group self-interests rather than pursuing the public good."

Consider welfare programs. Since the 1960s, the country has spent more than $8.5 trillion on food, housing, medical care and social services for the needy. All told, we've spent $1.45 on welfare for every $1.00 we've invested in national defense.

Many thought Congress had fixed welfare in 1996, and indeed child poverty has come down and employment among single mothers has increased because of that reform. But the welfare system is still far too expensive and intrusive. Worse, it's still growing.

Another example is the jump in farm subsidies. These payments provide a perfect example of a vested interest hijacking public policy.

Two-thirds of all farm subsidies go to 10 percent of farms, most of which have annual household incomes greater than $130,000. If it wanted to, Congress could assure every farmer a decent income for a "mere" $4 billion per year. Instead, lawmakers use subsidies.

The massive farm bill passed in 2002 will cost an estimated $180 billion over 10 years. That just goes to prove Beach's point -- once an interest group realizes it can convince the government to support it, the subsidies are virtually impossible to kill off. Last year's maximum amount becomes this year's minimum, and dependence on government grows.

It's still possible to break the chain of dependency, but doing so will be difficult. It's a matter of public policy. During the 1960s and 70s, when people seemed to want activist government, Congress embraced policies that made the Index shoot up. But dependency grew much more slowly during the 1980s and 90s when voters signaled their desire to return to a more prudent and conservative public policy.

In the years ahead, lawmakers will debate further welfare reform, education policy and health care. Conservatives must work to make sure the government does the right thing on each of these issues. We need less government intrusion and more individual freedom. That's the only way to get the Index to start going down -- which is what Americans really need.

Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office