The government safety net was created to catch and care for the poorest Americans, but it's becoming increasingly more common for middle-class and even upper-class people to collect benefits.
Take, for example, Ki Gulbranson, a Minnesota small-business owner who is bringing in $39,000 a year. He's a critic of government entitlement programs, he told The New York Times. But for the past three years, the 57-year-old collected several thousand dollars from the federal government in the form of an earned-income tax credit. His three school-age children eat breakfast and lunch on the government's dime. And through the Medicare program, the government has picked up the bill for his mother, 88, to have hip surgery twice.
Middle-class Americans represent 60 percent of the population and collect 58 percent of government benefits, according to an analysis of federal budget and census data conducted by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The richest 20 percent of the population collects 10 percent of entitlement dollars. The poorest 20 percent of the population collects 32 percent.
Contrary to popular belief, the jobless poor receive just a small portion of the benefits the government is doling out.
In 2010, 91 percent of the benefit dollars from entitlement and other mandatory programs went to the elderly, the seriously disabled and members of working households, according to the study. Of the remaining 9 percent, 7 percent collected benefits for medical care, unemployment insurance benefits and Social Security benefits.
"Over time, we find that expenditures have shifted toward the disabled and the elderly and away from those with the lowest incomes and toward those with higher incomes," observed the authors of a recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
The trend is a reflection of the deteriorating state of the middle class. About 45 percent of U.S. residents who are not considered poor by federal standards don't have enough money for basic expenses like housing, food and health care, according to a recent study from the advocacy group Wider Opportunities for Women.
The country's economic troubles, though, aren't the only factor. The increasing percentages of working Americans who collect benefits can also be attributed, in part, to the welfare reform in the 1980s and 1990s, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. To qualify for government cash assistance, a person must work between 30 and 40 hours a week. These hours can be fulfilled through a traditional job, community service or vocational training.
More middle- and upper-class families may also be collecting money because, in recent years, it has become easier to qualify for government benefits, according to Casey B. Mulligan, an economics professor at the University of Chicago.
When the earned-income credit was introduced in 1975, for example, a family had to earn less than the current equivalent of $26,997 to qualify. Now, families can make as much as $49,317 and still collect.
"In most states, having assets is no longer a barrier to receiving food stamps," Mulligan wrote in a column for The New York Times. "That's the main reason that participation in the program increased 37 percent more than the number of families with income near or below the poverty line."
Fifty-three percent of Americans say they are concerned "the government taxes workers too much to fund programs for people who could get by without help," according to a new National Journal poll. But when asked what programs should be cut, large majorities said Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid should not be cut at all. More than half don't believe food stamps and housing vouchers for low-income families should be cut.
"As a country, we haven't come to grips with the society we have become — and how to pay for it," wrote Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic.
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