Letters to the Editor

More Benefit, Fewer Pay

Editor's note: The following editorial appeared Wednesday in the Chicago Tribune.

When Congress and President Clinton embraced welfare reform in 1996, the goal was to move away from what was called a "culture of dependency." That effort succeeded. But today, there is a different specter: a broader culture of dependency that could eventually undermine our economic and political system.

The Wall Street Journal reports: "Nearly half of all Americans live in a household in which someone receives government benefits, more than at any time in history." In 2008, that group encompassed 44.4 percent of the U.S. population, and the weak economy has undoubtedly increased the number as people are thrown onto unemployment benefits, early retirement and food stamps.

This is a major change. A generation ago, less than a third of Americans lived in households getting government benefits. The expansion helps to explain why it has gotten harder than ever to restrain federal spending on entitlements: Too many oxen would be gored.

As if that trend were not worrisome enough, it coincides with another one: The number of households that pay taxes to finance all that assistance is declining. The Tax Policy Center says that in 2005, 39 percent of households paid no federal income tax. Today, it's 45 percent. Most of those do contribute to Social Security and Medicare, but not all: 13 percent of households pay neither income nor payroll levies.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once said taxes are "the price we pay for a civilized society." But in recent years, they've become the price that a lot of us don't pay for a civilized society.

At the rate we're going, that group may soon constitute a majority of the population. But then, so may the group composed of people getting federal benefits. So a minority of Americans may be taxed to provide support for the majority.

One problem is that as more people get benefits and fewer pay for them, the democratic pressures to contain federal spending weaken. The Journal notes that payments to individuals of one kind or another now account for 64 percent of all outlays, up from 47 percent in 1990. And people who don't pay income taxes may be more inclined to raise them on people who do.

Robert Reischauer, head of the liberal Urban Institute, says he is not worried: "If there became an expectation that government was going to provide over half the population's well-being to a significant degree without requiring anything of the recipients, there would be reason for concern. I don't think that's where we're headed."

Actually, that is exactly where we are headed. It's up to Congress and the president to change direction before it is too late.