Despite sky-high unemployment rates, the number of people signed up for government entitlement programs is shrinking.
The downward trend started in 2010 with unemployment insurance, USA Today reported, and stretched to include welfare benefits in 2011. During the past two months, the number of people using food stamps began to dip. In some states, Medicaid rolls are beginning to level off, but the number of people signed up for the program still remains high.
This year, close to half a million people will lose their unemployment benefits, The New York Times reported. To tide them over until the job market improves, the federal government has been supplementing state funds. In February, when the program was renewed, Congress phased in a reduction in the number of weeks of aid and made it more difficult for states to qualify.
In early 2011, close to half of Americans were living in a household where at least one member received some type of government benefit, The Wall Street Journal reported. That was up from just 30 percent in the early 1980s and 44.4 percent in the third quarter of 2008.
The climb in benefits was largely driven by the recession, which officially ended in 2009 — but not completely. Sixteen percent of American households receive Social Security and 15 percent receive Medicare, according to Census data. Those percentages are likely to keep climbing as the baby boomers age.
Seventy-three percent of Americans blame the federal budget deficit on overinflated federal programs, according to a 2011 Gallup poll.
Federal spending has dropped as caseloads have slimmed down, according to USA Today. At $25 billion, welfare spending is back to pre-recession levels. Spending on jobless benefits has fallen more than $50 billion since 2009 but is still more than double the amount spent before the recession.
Some worry, though, that the cutbacks may be too much, too soon. The expiration of unemployment benefits, for example, is contributing to what the Congressional Budget Office is calling a "fiscal cliff," which may drag the economy back into recession next year.
Unemployment is still at record levels, Hannah Shaw, a researcher at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, wrote in a blog post.
"Benefits have ended not because economic conditions have improved," Shaw wrote, "but because they have not significantly deteriorated in the past three years."