Why It’s So Hard to See Eye-to-Eye on Entitlement Spending

Alden Wicker

entitlement spendingOn New Year’s eve, we were set to buckle our seat belts and fly over the fiscal cliff.

So color us surprised when we were alerted (in between taking dignified sips of champagne) that our political leaders had come to a compromise–no one is really satisfied with it, of course–in the wee hours of 2013.

While the deal, which passed on Tuesday, includes higher taxes, it pushed off any spending cuts until the end of February.

This is not ideal.

Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security combined make up 41% of said spending. Any permanent solution to the national debt has to address government spending–not just taxes. Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security combined make up 41% of said spending. And the number of people receiving benefits is rising: 49.1% of the population now lives in a household that receives government benefits. In 2008, that figure was 44.4%. But in the early 1980s, it was just 30%.

And it will only get worse. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that spending on benefits will continue to climb at an even higher rate as the population ages and medical costs increase.

Obviously, something needs to be done. But why is it so hard for politicians to buck up and make a decision on what spending to trim?

The Conservative Conundrum

The Republican party is a devout believer in small government–and it has come out strongly in favor of cutting spending on entitlements from the Federal budget by raising the eligibility age for Medicare and impeding the cost-of-living increases for Social Security.

So the results of a December Pew poll are particularly surprising. It found that a majority of Americans have taken advantage of entitlements: 55%. Even more surprising: 57% of self-identifying conservatives say that they have benefitted from specific entitlement programs, compared to 53% of liberals.

But, wait … there’s more. When self-identifying Republicans (instead of conservatives) and Democrats (instead of liberals) were asked if they had used any of these government programs, Democrats were more likely to report that they’d benefitted from them than Republicans (60% versus 52%.) It isn’t clear whether this is because a “Republican” isn’t necessarily the same as a “conservative” or whether Republicans are more likely to misremember their use–but we’ll dive into this some more later.

What’s Really Going on Here? It’s a Question of Definition

One clue to this paradox can be found in the methodology of the Pew poll. Respondents were presented with the following wording:

“… whether you or anyone in your household has ever received any of the following government services and benefits: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, unemployment benefits, food stamps, college grants and loans, and veteran benefits.”

That tricky word, “entitlements,” was never used in the poll.

RELATED: How the Government Spends Your Precious Tax Dollars

  • Alexandra

    Its interesting things like Tax Credits and Home Mortgage Interest Deductions are considered “benefits.”  They are just certain qualifications that lower your taxes.  I would argue that that is something closer to a tax cut than an entitlement.  But its worse than a true tax cut because it just makes the tax code more complicated which is more expensive for the government to monitor and more expensive (in both time and/or accounting costs) to citizens to take advantage of.  

  • Melodie

    How about they put the money back in Social Security retirement that they’ve ‘borrowed’ and all the interest that would have accrued had they not ‘borrowed’ it, and stop calling it an entitlement.  It’s bad enough they make people pay taxes on Social Security which is a tax, but now everyone conveniantly forgets the only reason SS retirement it’s going to run out of money is because the goverment ‘borrowed’ out of it.

  • Cindy

    I find it strange that all of the government ‘benefits’ are considered ‘benefits’, when the government couldn’t exist without the taxes we pay in. So basically we are getting back a little of the money we work so hard to earn (those of us who work).

    • CrankyFranky

       I like the presumption by most US folk that they are independent free-entrepreneurs who rely on no-one but themselves – the article shows how easily overlooked many government benefits can be, especially if you are on the side that prefers to blame government for everything – forgetting that government tends to be ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’.  So when you’re pointing the finger, perhaps turn it around and point at yourself – you tend to get the government you deserve.