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The burden of entitlement

Posted: September 13, 2012 5:39 p.m.
Updated: September 14, 2012 5:00 a.m.

These figures are staggering:

In 1960, the U. S. government transferred money to individuals -- these are the entitlements you hear about so much -- totaling $24 billion in current dollars.

In 2010, that total was almost 100 times as large.

A hundred times.

Government at all levels transferred over $2.2 trillion in money, goods and services through programs such as food stamps, Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare.

You recall that “European socialism” model that some politicians have been warning us about?

You can forget that fear. It’s already here.

Disclaimer: these figures aren’t mine. They were compiled by Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, who recounted them in a national newspaper. I’m merely reporting the results.

And marveling at them.

Eberstadt’s thesis, agree with him or not, is that we have lost our way -- that the legendary independence and self-reliance of Americans no longer exist, having been replaced by a dependence on the government to take care of us.

Eberstadt says that in 1960, just over half a century ago, entitlement payments accounted for well under a third of all government spending -- about the same as in 1940, when the country was recovering from the Great Depression.

They now account for about two-thirds of all government spending.

Most of us would be shocked to see how much this is costing individuals and families in the United States. The annual burden of paying for these entitlements comes to more than $7,200 for every person in America. A family of four -- the “typical American family” -- averages an “entitlement burden” each year of about $29,000.

Considering that, it’s no wonder we’re sinking into a morass of debt.

Of course, the stagnant economy of the last few years hasn’t helped as more and more Americans have been thrown out of work and small businesses have failed. But the entitlement numbers have risen radically not only during recessions but through some of the great boom times of this country’s history.

Eberstadt argues in his newspaper piece that with entitlements now absorbing nearly two-thirds of every dollar the government spends, it’s turned governance upside down.               

Of all the entitlements, the highest growth has come in health care guarantees based on age (Medicare) or low income (Medicaid). Until the mid-1960s, he says, no such entitlements existed; by 2010, those two programs were absorbing nearly a trillion dollars annually.

He also discounts the popular notion that growth in entitlements has occurred under Democratic rule.

During the last half-century, he says, ballooning entitlement spending has been distinctly greater under Republican administrations than Democratic ones.

Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and George W. Bush presided over especially lavish expansion of American entitlements, Eberstadt says.

Nobody -- well, a few people, maybe -- believes that we should step back in time 50 years, but Eberstadt argues that Americans have ventured far away from the time when men and women in this country viewed themselves as accountable for their own situations.

The bipartisan 2010 Bowles/Simpson Commission, appointed by President Obama to address the nation’s deficit, said simply, “Our nation is on an unsustainable fiscal path.”

The commission’s findings were roundly ignored by Obama and Congress, both the Republican House and the Democratic Senate.

Eberstadt says financial chicanery can keep the country going, but argues “not so the day of reckoning for American character, which may be sacrificed long before the credibility of the U. S. economy.”

Some, he notes sadly, “would argue that it (character/self sufficiency/pride) is an asset already wasting away before our very eyes.”

And that’s indeed something to ponder.

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