Record Number of Americans Seeking Government Help
by Charles Lemos, Mon Aug 30, 2010 at 05:27:56 PM EDT
That the private sector has failed should be obvious but the takeaway that conservatives will draw from the news that one in six Americans, or 17 percent, is now aid-dependent for some or all of their needs is that these Americans are somehow lazy.
The four government social safety programs most being accessed are Medicaid, Food Stamps, Unemployment Insurance and Welfare. USA Today breaks down the numbers:
More than 50 million Americans are on Medicaid, the federal-state program aimed principally at the poor, a survey of state data by USA TODAY shows. That's up at least 17% since the recession began in December 2007.
The program has grown even before the new health care law adds about 16 million people, beginning in 2014. That has strained doctors. "Private physicians are already indicating that they're at their limit," says Dan Hawkins of the National Association of Community Health Centers.
More than 40 million people get food stamps, an increase of nearly 50% during the economic downturn, according to government data through May. The program has grown steadily for three years.
Caseloads have risen as more people become eligible. The economic stimulus law signed by President Obama last year also boosted benefits.
"This program has proven to be incredibly responsive and effective," says Ellin Vollinger of the Food Research and Action Center.
Close to 10 million receive unemployment insurance, nearly four times the number from 2007. Benefits have been extended by Congress eight times beyond the basic 26-week program, enabling the long-term unemployed to get up to 99 weeks of benefits. Caseloads peaked at nearly 12 million in January — "the highest numbers on record," says Christine Riordan of the National Employment Law Project, which advocates for low-wage workers.
More than 4.4 million people are on welfare, an 18% increase during the recession. The program has grown slower than others, causing Brookings Institution expert Ron Haskins to question its effectiveness in the recession.
As caseloads for all the programs have soared, so have costs. The federal price tag for Medicaid has jumped 36% in two years, to $273 billion. Jobless benefits have soared from $43 billion to $160 billion. The food stamps program has risen 80%, to $70 billion. Welfare is up 24%, to $22 billion. Taken together, they cost more than Medicare.
The necessity of jump-starting the economy should be obvious. Conservatives worry that government programs won't contract after the recession and that we're creating some of sort lasting dependency to government assistance. "They're much harder to unwind in the long term," says Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. I guess Mr. Tanner and his libertarian ilk would prefer that Americans line up for private charities and soup kitchens. This isn't just the poor that we are talking about. Increasingly those accessing these social safety net programmes are those who formerly comprised the middle classes.
In 2006, the SEIU and the Center for American Progress published a report entitled Middle Class in Turmoil (pdf) that warned that "despite an economic recovery well into its fifth year, middle class families are struggling to pay for a home, health insurance, transportation and their children’s college education due to a weak labor market and sharply higher prices. To pay for these necessary expenditures, middle class families are borrowing record amounts of money, leaving them unable to put away hardly any cash for a rainy day."
Well, guess what that rainy day is here and it's not just a deluge but a monsoon.