The best explanation for the tea party phenomenon is the overwhelming sense among so many Americans that our relationship between government and the governed has gotten out of whack.
But it has been easy for critics to pick at the movement because this sense, this feeling, has as many origins as the tea party has leaders. Just as there is no front man for the tea party, there has been no single fact or figure that tea partiers could point to and say, See this? This is what we’re talking about.
But the Heritage Foundation may have come close with the release last week, at an event in Buckhead, of its 2010 Index of Dependence on Government.
Heritage has compiled federal data on public spending dating back to 1962 on housing, health and welfare, retirement, education, and rural and agricultural services. The stalwart conservative institution then indexed them through the 2009 fiscal year.
The not-so-surprising result: Americans’ dependence on government is higher than ever.
One in five Americans — 64.3 million people — relies on government handouts to fulfill basic needs for housing, food and/or health care. That’s double the proportion before Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society,” and it doesn’t even include corporate welfare. Add the number of public workers, and almost three in 10 of us get our livelihood from government.
At the same time, two in five Americans in 2008 — 132.5 million people — did not pay federal income taxes and were not claimed as dependents by anyone who did. The percentage of nontaxpayers has nearly tripled since 1984.
The nontaxpayer figure has been kicked around in the press a fair amount, with detractors complaining that most of those millions do pay state and local taxes, including sales taxes. That’s true enough, although the federal figure is most vital since it’s at that level that most taxing, spending and public borrowing take place.
But the number of government dependents gets less discussion. That’s a mistake.
First, it’s a fiscal problem to have fewer than three taxpayers providing for each effective ward of the state, plus themselves and their own families.
The Social Security system alone says 2.9 workers are needed to sustain each retiree — a ratio that we’ve dipped below temporarily during the recession. We’re expected to fall permanently short of it by 2015. Multiply that gap by all government entitlements, and you see how precarious our situation is.
(An aside to those who bristle when I call Social Security an “entitlement”: Of course I know you paid payroll taxes, as I do now. I also know that these taxes won’t cover the benefits you and I are slated to receive.)
But perhaps more important, and just as animating to the tea party, is the effect the culture of dependence has on our national character.
One of the left’s most insidious canards is that you only care about helping someone if you support a federal program for them. That is true only to the degree that Washington has crowded out private charity.
As the Heritage authors wrote, “In the past, a person in need depended on help from people and organizations in his or her local community. …
“However, the dependent relationship with elements of the civil society includes healthy expectations of the recipient’s future civil viability and ability to aid another person in turn. The dependent relationship with the political system has no reciprocal expectations.”
Well, the politicians do expect votes. Still, the healthier kind of relationship is under ever-greater threat.
I’m sure critics will keep smearing the tea party as having darker motives. But if they don’t understand the importance of the dependence issue, they’ll still wonder what happened after the wave hits them.