Are We Really a Nation of Takers?


It is now a commonplace among conservatives to state that America has become a nation of takers—too many people are living comfortable lives on the public dole. (This reminds me of Reagan’s famous “welfare queen” driving around in a Cadillac.) The point was recently concisely argued in the Wall Street Journal by Nicholas Eberstadt, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank that espouses capitalist ideals and, as its website asserts, “freedom.” Dr. Eberstadt has the academic qualifications to make his point: after growing up in Manhattan, he attended Phillips Exeter Academy (current tuition for boarding students is $44,470 per year), and then completed his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Harvard (current base price as quoted in the 2012-2013 catalog, $37,576 per year).

Eberstadt notes that “entitlement payments” have increased markedly since 1960, both in dollars and in the sheer numbers of Americans receiving some sort of government handout. “Entitlement transfers—government payments of cash, goods, and services to citizens—have been growing twice as fast as overall personal income.” The portion of the total federal budget devoted to these transfers has increased from a third to nearly two thirds. Disability payments have risen as well, too often for vague complaints such as back pain and “sad feelings.”

The result of this largess, Eberstadt asserts, is a “flight from work,” particularly among males of prime working age, men in their thirties. This flight from work is a moral problem, caused by the “moral hazard embedded in the explosion of social-welfare programs” since 1960 (the year Kennedy was elected president, i.e., Year 1 in the takeover of the government by liberals!), leading to a “something for nothing mentality” that will undermine “civil society.” This does sound dire.

Like most conservatives, Eberstadt believes that it is the government’s handouts that are causing the flight from work and therefore the moral hazard. But perhaps he puts the cart before the horse. Perhaps people have been turning to government handouts because good jobs have become increasingly hard to find, and keeping a good job is no longer a sure thing even for conscientious and loyal workers. Manufacturing jobs, which in the 1950’s were the backbone of the working middle class, have been shipped abroad by the container load. From 28% of all jobs in 1968 to 9% in 2011. These were jobs largely filled by men. These jobs have been replaced by service sector jobs, which are generally lower-paying than manufacturing jobs, often tedious beyond words, and increasingly competed for by women. Real purchasing power of the average worker has declined over the last several decades, which is one reason why even married women with children now have to work—the typical middle class family simply could not make it on the male “breadwinner’s” income alone. The increase in permanent temporary work illustrates the pressure being applied to workers in general—the loss of security, benefits, and loyalty in favor of the bottom line for bosses and financiers (just compare today’s CEO salaries to those of the 1950s or 1960s).

Bottom line thinking has so thoroughly replaced other values, what one might call the virtues of a truly civil society, that it has become a ubiquitous metaphor, infecting many areas of thought other than accounting and finance. It is used by human resources administrators, health professionals, therapists, educators, politicians, environmentalists, visionaries, and religious leaders. “What’s the bottom line?” is often used as a (rude) interjection when one wants someone else to get to the point. The bottom line is a moral hazard, because it reduces everything to one thing, profit or loss.

Mr. Eberstadt may be correct in asserting that government handouts permit, if they do not outright encourage, dropping out of work. If that is so, he and his cronies might well ask why this moral decay, if that’s what it is, has fallen upon the American people in recent decades. The conservatives believe that government transfers are the sole and sufficient cause for the flight from work, but could they be merely the means for effecting an escape from the onerous conditions created by the capitalists themselves? If the option of meaningful and reliable work is not longer available, can a man be blamed for not being particularly interested in the alternatives, minimum wage at the corner convenience store, or little better at the call center where he has to sit on his prat all day peering at a computer screen? If the option of higher education at a reasonable and affordable price has been taken away, is there any reason for a high school student to study hard for his finals?

Although CEOs and other management types, as well as those who have had the privilege of attending Phillips Exeter and Harvard, seem to think of workers as mere cogs in the business and economic machinery, those cogs themselves do in fact have minds, they have eyes to see what’s going on, and they think about what is going on. They are not idiots. They know a bad bargain when they see one. They know who the real takers are.

If the conservatives sincerely want people to work rather to continue living on the dole, then they should turn their attention to the creation of jobs truly worth having. That will mean skimming off a bit less for themselves from the Blessed Bottom Line.

Nicholas Eberstadt, “Yes, Mr. President, We Are a Nation of Takers,” Wall Street Journal, January 25, 2013.

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