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Romney was surreptitiously recorded saying, while at a private meeting with a group of donors, that 47% of Americans look to government to provide for them, so wouldn’t be voting for him, and that he was focusing  his efforts on the rest.  But is there any truth to his assertion that 47% depend on government?  Let’s examine a few of the more prominent government transfer programs.  First is Social Security and Supplemental Security and Disability Insurance, from the Social Security Administration website (my apologies for the quotation marks, this thing didn’t want to transfer correctly):

Number of people receiving Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, or both, August 2012 (in thousands)

Type of beneficiary


Social Security only

SSI only

Both Social Security and SSI

All beneficiaries





Aged 65 or older





Disabled, under age 65 a





Other b



. . .

. . .

SOURCES: Social Security Administration, Master Beneficiary Record, 100 percent data. Social Security Administration, Supplemental Security Record, 100 percent data.

NOTES: Data are for the end of the specified month. Only Social Security beneficiaries in current-payment status are included.

. . . = not applicable.

a. Includes children receiving SSI on the basis of their own disability.

b. Social Security beneficiaries who are neither aged nor disabled (for example, early retirees, young survivors).

As of August of 2012, the total of all beneficiaries is almost 62 million.  In a nation of roughly 310 million, that means 20% of the population is on the Social Security Administration dole in some form or another.

What about unemployment insurance?   It was reported today (October 2, 2012) by the Congressional Research Service that there were almost 2,400 recipients of unemployment insurance who reported income in excess of a million dollars in 2009.  In total, there were about 11.3 million unemployment insurance recipients that year, but not that many received benefits for the whole year.  According to FRED (the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis database), citing statistics compiled by the US Dept. of Labor, there are roughly 3.7 people receiving unemployment insurance, and the total on the unemployment insurance rolls at one time peaked in 2009 at about 6.5 million, as the following chart indicates:

Graph of Continued Claims (Insured Unemployment)

3.7 million in a nation of 310 million is 1 percent.

What about Medicare and Medicaid?  According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 15% of Americans are Medicare beneficiaries (about 46 million) and roughly 62.5 million Americans are enrolled in Medicaid (there is some overlap between the two), for a Medicaid enrollment of about 20% of the population.   There is also a fair degree of overlap between Social Security recipients and Medicare/Medicaid recipients.

What of food stamps, or more technically, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) administered by the US Department of Agriculture?  According to the USDA website, SNAP is “putting healthy food on the table for 46 million people each month”.  That’s about 15% of the population. 

What about welfare, or as it is now known, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families?  According to the US Dept. of Health and Human Services, 4.4 million individuals receive assistance each month, or a little over 1% of the population.

But it is not only individuals that receive transfer payments from the government.  Farmers, for instance, are heavily on the dole.  Some 10,000 farming operations received some form of federal government subsidy in 2011, and 26 farming operations received over a million dollars, according to the Environmental Working Group 2012 Farm Subsidy Data Base.  Their group keeps track of the roughly $270 billion that has been paid to farmers since 1995 for crop insurance, disaster programs and conservation.

There are many billions, even trillions, more in subsidies to businesses and industry that are subtle and difficult to exactly quantify (the farm subsidies are one of the few in which the government is upfront about what it is doing with its serial “farm bills”).  But surely, the extra $2 trillion added to the Federal Reserve balance sheet should count as a subsidy to the banking industry, along with, of course, the Fed’s direct purchases of crappy bank assets during the financial crisis.  Ultra low (zero) interest rates for short-term debt set by the Fed, coupled with bank reserves receiving a set rate above zero amounts to a direct subsidy to banks, who have to do nothing more than borrow money from the Fed and lend it back to them as reserves to bolster the capital on their balance sheets.   And the Fed’s programmed purchases of housing securities amounts to a subsidy for the sellers of mortgage-backed securities that benefits the consumer little, if at all.  But the mortgage interest deduction is a subsidy to the housing consumer, amounting to hundreds of billions in government benefits doled out to home borrowers.

Even without accounting for federal government employees and contractors (who, it can be argued, are not on the dole because they actually are receiving money as compensation for their employment, and not just because of their status), and leaving off the subsidies afforded to higher education (the true welfare queens if ever there were any), it still appears that a great many more than just 47% of Americans are on the federal government dole.   It seems impossible for Romney to concentrate his efforts on Americans that aren’t on the dole if he is to win election.  In fact, a coalition of just bankers, farmers and individual transfer payment recipients would get him close to number he needs for election.  Or, put another way, if he writes off all those who receive federal government benefits because of their particular situation or status, he will likely lose. 

It is truly the case, now more than ever, that all economic roads lead to Washington.  The question in this campaign isn’t whether a voter will receive government benefits.  The question is how much and to whom the benefits should accrue.