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Cause or Effect?

The Heritage Foundation has a series of graphs which appear to depict two trends: an ever increasing dependency of the American population on government transfer payments and a narrowing income tax base. It writes, "it is the conjunction of these two trends—higher spending on dependence-creating programs, and an ever-shrinking number of taxpayers who pay for these programs—that concerns those interested in the fate of the American form of government."

The 2012 publication of the Index of Dependence on Government marks the tenth year that The Heritage Foundation has flashed warning lights about Americans’ growing dependence on government programs. For a decade, the Index has signaled troubling and rapid increases in the growth of dependence-creating federal programs, and every year Heritage has raised concerns about the challenges that rapidly growing dependence poses to this country’s republican form of government, its economy, and for the broader civil society. Index measurements begin in 1962; since then, the Index score has grown by more than 15 times its original amount. This means that, keeping inflation neutral in the calculations, more than 15 times the resources were committed to paying for people who depend on government in 2010 than in 1962. In 2010 alone, the Index of Dependence on Government grew by 8.1 percent. The Index variables that grew the most were:

Housing: 13 percent

Health Care and Welfare: 13.1 percent

Retirement: 3.1 percent.

The increase from the previous Index means that the Index has now grown by 60.7 percent just since 2001. One of the most worrying trends in the Index is the coinciding growth in the non-taxpaying public. The percentage of people who do not pay federal income taxes, and who are not claimed as dependents by someone who does pay them, jumped from 14.8 percent in 1984 to 49.5 percent in 2009. This means that in 1984, 34.8 million tax filers paid no taxes; in 2009, 151.7 million paid nothing.

Tim Wise, who is a regular guest on CNN, says the dependency question is only another way of looking at the history of racism in America. The idea of small government, he argues, is the nothing more than a code word in the "politics of nostalgia"; the a desire to return to the inequities of the past.

Oh, and not to put too fine a point on it, but the founders actually did foster quite a lot of government dependence: enshrining slavery was about government protecting white people from the competition of free black labor, and white folks becoming quite dependent on that protection. Stealing native land and then redistributing it to white people was about dependence on government-imposed violence. And later, yet still in the supposedly "good old days," government dependence was at the heart of segregation--which artificially subsidized white people in the job, school and housing markets--and was at the heart of the FHA and VA loans that white families used (and from which black families were all but completely blocked) in the 40s and 50s, which literally built the white middle class.

But I'm guessing that when she uses a phrase like "dependence on government" she isn't thinking about the white folks who were given 270 million acres of essentially free land under the Homestead Act. Or the 15 million or so white families who got those racially preferential home loans, with government underwriting and guarantees, thanks to programs implemented by liberals and thanks to pressure from the left. I'm thinking she isn't talking about the white soldiers (but typically not the black ones) who were able to return from World War II and make use of the GI Bill to go to college, or get job training. And the fact that she likely doesn't think of those kinds of things and those kinds of people as being dependent on government is, of course, precisely the problem, and the point I was trying to make. ...

Indeed several of the e-mails made this same argument about opposing "government dependence," all the while oblivious, it appears, to the way in which that concept has become so color-coded in the white imagination over the past several decades. In fact, this is a point I had made on the program: that according to a significant body of social science research (among the most prominent, Martin Gilens's brilliant book, Why Americans Hate Welfare), most whites perceive social program spending aimed at helping the have-nots (be they income have-nots, housing have-nots, or health care-have nots) as being about giving something tothose people, who are, of course, conceived of in black and brown terms, and taking from "hard-working" white folks in order to do it. So if the notion of government dependence itself has been racialized--and the evidence says it has been--to say that it is only this dependence you oppose, and that racism has nothing to do with it is to either lie or engage in self-deception of a most unfortunate and unbecoming variety. ...

In the end, although there are many people, with many different reasons for opposing the President or his health care proposal, the role that race and racism is playing cannot be ignored. With major conservative spokespersons stoking the fires of racial resentment daily, and with most whites having long ago come to the conclusion that social program spending is something done on behalf of racial "minorities" at their own white expense, it is not too much to insist that race is operating, for some quite overtly and for others more subtly.

According to this point of view, "government dependence" is nothing more than an index of the frontline in class struggle. Small government is nothing but the effect of Big Property. Big government on the other hand,  just represents sharing the wealth. And there is nothing wrong in that; it simply represents the flow of resources, for so long in the direction from the poor to the rich, back in the direction it should go. At least so goes the argument.

Whichever side of the issue one takes on this matter, the question might be if that line is where it should be. Is the growing role of government as a redistributor of incomes a bug or a feature? Is it good or bad? Underneath the differences in personalities which supposedly underlies each campaign, the question of whether this boundary is what actually divides the country lies at the heart of the 2012 election.

What is the role of government in the social context of America? Is it a promoter of 'freedom' or a champion of 'fairness'?


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