It's easy to criticize government benefits when somebody else is receiving them. Consider the national war on "welfare" waged by Republicans.
In Missouri, Florida and several other states, legislatures have passed or are debating bills that would allow for drug testing of public benefit recipients. The argument — and studies show that it's a bogus argument — is that people in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or food stamp programs might be more likely to abuse drugs.
Florida's year-long case study under such a law has proven its folly, as public benefit recipients were found to abuse drugs less than the general population. The spiteful legislation has been a huge waste of time and money.
The debate would look entirely different if it focused on the people who actually receive the most government aid. On Feb. 12, The New York Times published an exhaustive study of government benefits that should be required reading for lawmakers and, frankly, anybody in the process of filling out their taxes.
The report showed that the amount of government aid going to the "very poor" people, about whom Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney says he isn't all that worried, actually is declining. In fact, the middle class takes in the lion's share of government aid.
It might not be called welfare, but it's definitely public benefits, whether it comes in the form of Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, farm subsidies, earned-income tax credits or other direct forms of government entitlement most of us are unwilling to give up.
The Times found that the poorest households in America received only 36 percent of government aid in 2007, down from 54 percent in 1979. Similarly, a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that in 2010, the middle 60 percent of the nation, by income, received a much higher percentage of government aid than the poorest Americans.
In Missouri, according to The Times' research, mostly rural, generally politically conservative counties in the state receive more government aid as a percentage of individual income than people living in urban areas. In the city of St. Louis, for instance, about 25 percent of the city's overall income comes from some form of government aid. But plenty of rural counties — Hickory, Benton, Ozark, Carter, Reynolds, Wayne and others — get more than 40 percent of their income from government aid.
The disparity is stark. The very people rising in anger against government aid are, in many cases, the ones who benefit most from it. If public policy is to be based on facts, not fantasy, that's a place to start.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.