THE BLOG
01/10/2013 11:33 am ET | Updated Mar 12, 2013

The Silent Majority Utilizes the Social Safety Net and Believes in It

Mitt Romney famously was caught saying to a group of wealthy donors during the presidential campaign:

There are 47 percent of the people who....are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them...And so my job is not to worry about those people--I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

It turns out that, in addition to conveying an abhorrent message, Romney was pretty far off on his numbers. According to a new report by the Pew Research Center, "A Bipartisan Nation of Beneficiaries:

  • 55 percent of the American people have received benefits from at least one of the six best-known federal entitlement programs -- unemployment benefits, Social Security, Medicare, SNAP (formerly Food Stamps), Medicaid and/or cash welfare. These six programs generate the vast majority of federal spending on the social safety net.
  • 71 percent of the American people are part of a household where one or more people have received at least one of these benefits.
  • If veterans' benefits and federal college grants and loans are also counted, 86 percent of the American people -- six of every seven Americans -- are part of a household where one or more people have received at least one of these benefits.

Nor can Romney blame his election defeat on the "beneficiaries" of government largesse who, he also said, would "vote for the president no matter what." As it turns out, there is not much difference in the political beliefs of those who have received benefits from one of the six major entitlement programs and those who have not:

  • 57 percent of conservatives, 53 percent of liberals, and 53 percent of moderates say they have received benefits.
  • 60 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans say that have received benefits.
  • 59 percent of the people who voted for Obama and 53 percent of the people who voted for Romney say they have received benefits.

Even two in five relatively wealthy Americans -- persons whose annual earnings exceed $100,000 -- say they have received benefits from one of the six major entitlement programs.

Less surprising is the finding that women, blacks and rural residents are more likely to have received benefits than their counterparts.

The Pew report also measured public attitudes towards benefits. Fifty-seven percent of the public said that it is the government's responsibility to care for those who cannot take care of themselves, with only a small difference between those who have received benefits (60 percent) and those who have not (55 percent).

There was a much greater difference on this point between people with different political orientations. Seventy-four percent of Democrats say that it is the government's responsibility to care for those who cannot take care of themselves, but only 57 percent of independents and 38 percent of Republicans agree.

The report also found that some benefits are more popular than others. Providing unemployment benefits is just as popular among people who have never received them as those who have. However, among people who say the government has a duty to care for those who cannot care for themselves, there are double-digit gaps between recipients and non-recipients of Medicaid (13 percent), SNAP (14 percent), and cash welfare (17 percent).

President Obama and Congress have averted the fiscal cliff. As we move on to a potential fiscal apocalypse if Congress fails to increase the debt ceiling before approximately March 1, policymakers should take careful note of the Pew report's main findings. To reiterate, 55 percent of Americans have received at least one major entitlement benefit, and seven out of 10 Americans are part of a household that includes a member who has received at least one of these benefits. Receipt of benefits is about the same across the political spectrum, with conservatives actually more likely to have received benefits than liberals or moderates. And 57 percent of the American people, including majorities of those who have and have not received benefits, believe that it is the government's responsibility to care of those who cannot take care of themselves.

Right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and others will continue to decry people who receive benefits as "takers" and disparage safety net programs for "breeding a culture of dependency on government." As the Pew report shows, a solid majority of the American people has had a different life experience and rejects this view.