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Few Willing to Step Outside the Safety Net

Conservative Republican candidates like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are both calling for a reexamination of the safety net of government aid. Santorum warns of what he calls “the narcotic of government dependency.” Gingrich in turn likens the supposed safety net to a spider web.

The warnings aren’t just coming from Santorum and Gingrich. Mitt Romney says the nation must choose between an “entitlement society” and an “opportunity society.” Ron Paul, like the other Republican candidates promises to cut spending and reduce taxes.

But is shrinking the safety net of government services as simplistic as some make it sound? Politicians have expanded the safety net without a corresponding increase in revenues for decades. And that is the main factor in the sharp increase in government’s annual deficits and debt.

Federal and state governments spent about 37 cents on the safety net from every dollar they collected in revenue in 2000. Just a decade later, a New York Times analysis shows the safety net now consumes 66 cents of every dollar in tax revenue.

The recent recession only served to increase dependence on government, leaving the hand writing on the wall for the near future. Over the next 25 years, as the population ages and medical costs climb, the Congressional Budget Office projects benefits programs will grow at a faster rate than any other part of government, pushing the federal debt to precarious heights.

What many miss in this discussion about the government safety net is that it no longer supports just the truly poor. Nearly half of all Americans live in households that received government benefits in 2010. That share rose from 37.7 percent in 1998 to 48.5 percent in 2010.

The percentage of Americans covered by the safety net has increased dramatically in 20 years. When the earned-income credit was introduced in 1975, eligibility was limited to households making the current equivalent of up to $26,997. In 2010, it was available to families making up to $49,317. On an inflation-adjusted basis, the maximum payout has quadrupled.

Ki Gulbranson (Linstrom, Minn) is a good example of why the safety net has expanded to such proportions. Gulbranson owns a logo apparel shop and makes almost $40,000 per year. He is an avid supporter of the Tea Party and supported Republican Chip Cravaack, who ousted this region’s long-serving Democratic congressman.

Mr. Gulbranson says that too many Americans lean on taxpayers rather than living within their means. He also wants everyone to know that he does not need any help from the federal government. What he doesn’t realize, like too many American, is that he is a part of the government, tax-funded safety net.

For each of the past three years, Gulbranson has received thousands of dollars from the federal government via a subsidy for working families called the earned-income tax credit. He has also enrolled his three school-age children for free breakfast and lunch paid for with federal funds. His 88-year-old mother’s two hip surgeries were paid through Medicare.

Northeast Minneapolis is hardly a poverty ridden region. Ki Gulbranson and most of the other residents of the area would all probably describe themselves as part of the self-sufficient middle class. Yet like many other Americans, they are more a part of the safety net that then they realize.

Dozens of benefits programs provided an average of $6,583 for each man, woman and child in the county in 2009, a 69 percent increase from 2000 after adjusting for inflation. In Minneapolis, and across the nation, the government now provides almost $1 in benefits for every $4 in other income.

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