Some conservative critics of federal social programs, including leading presidential candidates, are sounding an alarm that the United States is rapidly becoming an "entitlement society" in which social programs are undermining the work ethic and creating a large class of Americans who prefer to depend on government benefits rather than work. A new CBPP analysis of budget and Census data, however, shows that more than 90 percent of the benefit dollars that entitlement and other mandatory programs spend go to assist people who are elderly, seriously disabled, or members of working households — not to able-bodied, working-age Americans who choose not to work. (See Figure 1.) This figure has changed little in the past few years.
In a December 2011 op-ed, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney warned ominously of the dangers that the nation faces from the encroachment of the "Entitlement Society," predicting that in a few years, "we will have created a society that contains a sizable contingent of long-term jobless, dependent on government benefits for survival." "Government dependency," he wrote, "can only foster passivity and sloth." Similarly, former Senator Rick Santorum said that recent expansions in the "reach of government" and the spending behind them are "systematically destroying the work ethic."
The claim behind these critiques is clear: federal spending on entitlements and other mandatory programs through which individuals receive benefits is promoting laziness, creating a dependent class of Americans who are losing the desire to work and would rather collect government benefits than find a job.
Such beliefs are starkly at odds with the basic facts regarding social programs, the analysis finds. Federal budget and Census data show that, in 2010, 91 percentof the benefit dollars from entitlement and other mandatory programs went to the elderly (people 65 and over), the seriously disabled, and members of working households. People who are neither elderly nor disabled — and do not live in a working household — received only 9 percent of the benefits.
Moreover, the vast bulk of that 9 percent goes for medical care, unemployment insurance benefits (which individuals must have a significant work history to receive), Social Security survivor benefits for the children and spouses of deceased workers, and Social Security benefits for retirees between ages 62 and 64. Seven out of the 9 percentage points go for one of these four purposes.
A small number of discretionary (i.e., non-entitlement) programs also provide substantial benefits to individuals, but the lack of full funding for some of these programs means they do not reach all eligible recipients. Indeed, in some cases — such as in low-income rental assistance programs — the vastmajority of people who are eligible receive nobenefits because of program funding limits. If we broaden the universe of programs examined to include the principal discretionary programs that provide benefits — low-income housing programs, the WIC nutrition program for low-income women and young children, and low-income energy assistance — the result is essentially unchanged. Some 90 percent of the benefit dollars still go to the elderly, the disabled, and working households.
This figure also changes little if we tweak the definition of a "working household" or of who is "disabled." This analysis defines a working household as one in which an individual works at least 1,000 hours in a year; raising the threshold to 1,500 hours makes little difference. This analysis defines a disabled person as one who receives Social Security disability benefits or the disability component of the Supplemental Security Income program (SSI) or who qualifies for Medicare on the basis of disability; modifying the definition to include disabled people who are not in one of these categories also makes little difference.