November 23, 2006

November 23, 2006 | Commentary on

Counting on government adds up to excessive dependency

Thanksgiving is the perfect time to count your blessings. Many of us will prefer to follow Will Rogers' advice and "thank God we're not getting all the government we're paying for."

Unfortunately, that quip might not remain true much longer. A new Heritage Foundation study shows Americans are saddled with more government every year, and we're becoming steadily more dependent on it.

The soon-to-be-released 2006 Index of Dependency aims to measure the "progress" of the federal government in crowding out private- or community-based services and programs. It focuses on five main categories of federal programs: housing assistance, health and welfare spending, retirement income, educational subsidies for college students, and farm subsidies.

So how much does our nation of pioneers rely on government? Since 1980, dependency has more than doubled, rising by 138 percent. That long-term trend continued in recent years under a Republican president and (outgoing) Republican Congress. Just since 2001 the index has jumped some 20 percent.

To put it simply, the federal public sector is shouldering civil society aside. It won't be easy to reverse it.

Consider health care. Medicare and Medicaid were enacted in the mid-'60s, during President Johnson's "Great Society" initiative. They quickly became sponges, drawing off ever-more federal spending. In 2005 these two programs alone accounted for one-fifth of all federal spending.

This dangerous trend is going to accelerate. Within the next five years, some 77 million baby boomers will begin to retire, which will force Medicare to deliver a steady stream of new benefits and services. By 2015, federal or state governments will pay half of all health-care costs. Medicare and Medicaid alone are projected to cost federal taxpayers $9.1 trillion by 2016.

Young adults are growing increasingly dependent on government as well. This year the federal government will help some 10 million students pay for college. But hold your applause: That increased federal spending actually crowds out existing family and community support systems, so as costs keep increasing, there'll be fewer places for students to get funding. Meanwhile, a big chunk of this spending is going to students who are already well off. As the College Board points out, "recent changes in student aid policies have benefitted those in the upper half of the income distribution more than those in the lower half."

Yet we're not helpless. We can reduce our dependence on government. The 1996 welfare reform bill proves that.

In 1994, 14.2 million Americans were on welfare. That's 5.5 percent of our population. But in 1996, lawmakers changed the nature of welfare. Instead of simply sitting back and collecting a check, recipients had to prove they were working or training for a job. This helped break the cycle of dependency.

Since the reform, 2.3 million children have been lifted out of poverty as their parents found jobs and became self-sufficient. Because government forced these parents to take some responsibility, the poverty rate for black children and single mothers has plunged by a third in just a decade. It's amazing what people can accomplish when the government gives them the freedom to do so.

The growth in the size and scope of government can't go on forever. As Thomas Jefferson put it, "Dependence begets subservience and venality." Eventually, overreliance on government will eat away at American independence and ingenuity, the very traits we've relied upon to build the world's greatest nation.

If we want our grandchildren to be able to give thanks for being Americans, we'll need to heed the warning of the Index of Dependency. It's time to start steering a course away from government control of our lives -- and start moving back toward greater personal responsibility.

Edwin Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (, a Washington-based public policy research institute and co-author of the new book Getting America Right.

About the Author

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

First appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times