08/15/2011 10:51 am ET | Updated Oct 15, 2011

Americans As Welfare Queens? It's a Dangerous Right-Wing Narrative

Conservatives are spinning a narrative that pictures the U.S. as a profligate, lazy, "entitled" society, one in which the Protestant work ethic has withered on the vine and citizens live beyond their means and rely on government handouts.

In a recent Time essay, "One Nation, on the Dole," former New Hampshire senator John Sununu wrote, "The dirty little secret about America is that being on the dole is no longer the exception but the rule." Recipients of government programs, he says, "chuckle all the way to the bank."

It's a compelling story, and one the news media often parrot, but the data show it's a false one -- at least for American workers. The recipients of corporate welfare may be chuckling, but the rest of us are working our butts off. Over the past decade, studies have shown that American workers are on the job for more hours than their European counterparts. In 2006, Forbes reported that "[t]he average American works 25 hours a week; the average Frenchman 18; the average Italian a bit more than 16 and a half. Even the hardest-working Europeans -- the British, who put in an average of 21 and half hours -- are far more laid-back than their American cousins." If we Americans have our hands out, we're not getting much. According to a survey by the Institute for Health and Social Policy, based at McGill University, the U.S. lagged behind all high-income countries by not mandating so much as a single day of paid leave. The U.S. is the only country in the Americas without a national paid parental leave benefit. Most countries offer guaranteed paid leave for family emergencies; the U.S. offers only unpaid leave.

If you look at the U.S. budget, the bulk of our government spending other than defense goes to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other programs that keep our elders and low-income citizens free from sickness and stark poverty, and our kids (and the rest of us) healthy. The Congressional Budget Office reports that more than 60 percent of the budget is spent on defense, Social Security and federal health care combined.

This wasn't always so, especially in our early days.

When Thomas Jefferson called for a nation of hardy, independent farmers and tradesmen, "heath care" was just a matter of genes and luck. In the colonial era, 50 percent of all children died before reaching adulthood, and 50 percent of children lost at least one parent. Whole families -- and whole towns -- were wiped out by infectious and parasitic diseases, including tuberculosis, pneumonia, bronchitis and gastrointestinal infections, as well as such lethal diseases as cholera, smallpox, diphtheria and typhoid fever. Women died by the thousands of "childbed fever" because those who delivered their babies didn't know what germs were and that they caused infections.

The real story is that today, we are paying for the success of our own brainpower, not for needless "frills." In Jefferson's day, government spent just about zero on health care; there wasn't much it could do, and the Grim Reaper made the decisions about people's health -- or lack of it.

It wasn't until the 19th century that government entered the picture in a major way, creating piped-in clean water and sewage systems. In 1885 the cholera organism was identified in water via the microscope and could be contained by public health officials. We finally figured out that doctors and midwives were the major killers of women simply because they didn't wash their hands. The 20th century saw mass public health campaigns, vaccinations of nearly every child and widespread use of antibiotics to control infection. We saw the proliferation of sophisticated technologies to detect disease, such as MRIs, and an ever-expanding array of drugs to control it.

In the colonial era, life expectancy for Americans ranged from the 20s to the early 40s. Today it's 78 years.

But this doesn't come cheap. Tea Partiers look back with nostalgia to the colonial era as a time of freedom and small government, but would they accept rampant cholera, whooping cough and typhoid, along with a nicely chiseled tombstone at about age 40?

The real narrative of the U.S. today is that of a hard-working, overworked people trying to cope with the stress of globalization, job loss and recession. We rely mainly on our own initiative and hustle but look to government to keep the safety net intact when we are old, out of work through no fault of our own, disabled or sick.

We have to ask if we want to go back to the Hoover era, where only the rich were secure, or if we want to battle for the more just and decent society that we have created with our new medical technology through our government. Maybe wealthy white men like John Sununu want to go back in time, but not the rest of us.

The fact is that only government has the resources to keep the modern medical miracle alive and working for all of us. New technology and, above all, better health decisions and prevention by all of us will help bring down the cost, but we are an aging society, and it will not be cheap.

Social Security and Medicare work, and hopefully the new health care system, with its pilot programs, will create new economies of scale and ways to keep costs in control.

But the right-wing narrative makes it easy to slash the safety net for "lazy, entitled" people while keeping the privileges of the rich untouched and pushing the nation's wealth ever upward into a tiny corner of the population.

Language is politics, George Orwell said, and we need to adjust the national narrative to reflect reality, not right-wing fantasy.