The New York Times ran an excellent opinion piece yesterday — “We Are the 96 Percent” by Suzanne Mettler and John Sides. In the midst of all the heated campaign rhetoric, demagoguery, and distortion, these writers come across as the calm voice of reason.
They explain in detail how Americans are not divided into makers and moochers, or the 53% and the 47%. In fact, the study they cite shows that 96% of us, Republican and Democrat alike, have benefited from one or another of many government social policies.
The Cornell study asked Americans if they had ever taken advantage of any of 21 different government benefits and policies, from student loans to Medicare. It excluded those things that benefit everyone, like national defense, food safety regulations, and the interstate highway system, and focused only on tangible benefits to individual households.
The study found that 96% of all Americans had at some time relied on the government for assistance. The remaining 4% were primarily young adults who didn’t qualify for many benefits. On average, most people reported having used five social policies at some time in their lives. That included direct benefits like checks or goods and services paid for by the government, and less obvious “submerged” benefits like home mortgage interest deductions and the tax-free status of employer contributions to employee health insurance.
The majority of individuals from households at every income level have used at least one direct social policy. Low-income people have used more of the direct policies than have the affluent: the average household with income under $10,000 per year used four of them, compared to only one by the households at $150,000 and above. But the proportions were reversed in the case of the submerged policies: wealthy families had typically used three of them, and the poor just one.
Where Americans actually differ, the authors say, is in their thinking and attitude about government’s role. Despite the fact that 96% of us benefit from government policies, conservatives were less likely than liberals to answer yes when asked if they had at some time used a “government social program,” even though specific questions later revealed both groups had used the same number of benefits.
We would all do well to remember that we are not so different after all, and that while incomes and lifestyles vary widely in America, we really are all in this together. We all support our government in one way or another, and we all reap benefits from that government. We are all both makers and takers. And more importantly, we are all Americans.