This headline, from a recent article in The American Prospect, describes the work of Suzanne Mettler, a political scientist at Cornell. Her survey research has shown that 96% of Americans receive government benefits or use government programs, often without realizing it. (Most of the other 4% are too young and not yet eligible for government benefits.)
So yes, even the richest 1% are “on welfare.”
As Mettler points out, these are not merely surprising numbers: the way in which the wealthy receive their benefits has consequences for everyone else.
Government programs and benefits for the well-to-do are mainly hidden in the form of tax loopholes, termed “tax expenditures” by economists. But programs for the poor and middle class – like food stamps and Medicaid – are more visible, for two reasons. First, their benefits come in the form of direct spending, not benefits buried in the tax code. Second, wealthy and corporate interests are able to publicize direct spending programs for average people because they have privileged access to the media. Which is why we frequently hear about “welfare queens,” rarely about “rich raiders” of the public treasury.
And, as Mettler explained in the New York Times last year, in an op-ed entitled The Welfare Boogeyman,
Conservatives capitalize on the willingness of many Americans to blame “welfare” recipients, while ignoring the pillaging of the public sector by the affluent through tax cuts and tax code benefits. (Emphasis added.)
As a result, she wrote, we are being pushed to turn against “the very entity that holds the capacity to address society’s most pressing problems.”
In an interview in October, Mettler elaborated:
So, if we become more and more anti-government, we’re against ourselves. We’re against our own collective capacity to do anything. So, it really doesn’t matter what it is. It could be economic inequality, it could be climate change, it could be restoring the infrastructure. We can’t solve any of these problems without government. And if individual citizens withdraw from public life, the only people in society who have power are those with lots of economic power. That’s why I find this profoundly troubling.
She calls this problem the Government-Citizen Disconnect, which is the title of her new book about this phenomenon.
Asked what should be done – “how can we bridge the gap between citizens and government?” -- she responds:
“We have to change the narrative.”