During the first half of October 2013, another epic battle played out in Washington over the federal budget. Narrowly avoiding default, both sides decided to kick the can down the road—again. The contrast between those who believe government must provide ever more services and those who wonder how the nation will ever pay its mounting bills grew starkly defined.
Since the end of World War II, when the United States emerged as the world's greatest superpower, massive change has transformed the fabric of American society. A nation in which millions worked hard to defeat fascism and imperialism has turned into a nation increasingly on the dole.
As of early 2013 a staggering 160 million Americans (out of 325 million)—more than 49 percent—live in households receiving a monthly check from one or more government programs. Federal entitlements have expanded to include Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, student education loans, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, and a host of other programs.
Over the past five years these programs have cost taxpayers a shocking $3.7 trillion. This is more than the entire U.S. Gross National Product was in the early 1980s. It's more than five times what the U.S. government spent on NASA, education and transportation during the same period.
Let's take a closer look at America's shift to dependency and what it means for the nation.
Expanding programs, expanding fraud
It all began with the granddaddy of social programs, Social Security. Enacted in the depths of the Great Depression in 1933, the original aim was to set up a plan for older workers to contribute to their retirement.
But today's glut of programs bears little resemblance to the simple program President Franklin Roosevelt had in mind. Today more than 58 million Americans receive a check each month from the Social Security Administration—a number predicted to swell to more than 97 million by 2035.
Many government programs are known for fraud and abuse. One part of Social Security, the disability insurance program (SSDI), has grown especially fast in recent years. Originally intended to pay benefits to the truly disabled, the program is being investigated for fraudulent approvals, enabling perhaps millions of able-bodied Americans to receive monthly checks of up to $2,500 from the government.
While the vast majority of those receiving Social Security disability benefits qualify legally, fraud in the program has been well documented. A typical pattern involves older workers who have lost their jobs due to the recent recession. When unemployment benefits run out, the next logical step for many is to claim a disability that will keep federal checks coming. If the initial claim is denied, there are always lawyers with TV ads claiming to know just how to get those benefits coming.
But the problem doesn't stop there. Frequent exposés reveal thousands of other Americans fraudulently receiving benefits, using ruses such as the names of dead people or people who have left the country. It all adds up to billions in fraud and abuse annually.
Like other entitlements, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as the Food Stamp program, began with a lofty purpose. America has always had an underclass of truly poor people facing chronic hunger. The Food Stamp program was enacted to provide a nutritional "safety net" for these individuals.
But the Food Stamp program has exploded, like so many other federal entitlement programs. Since 2007, the program has mushroomed from a $35 billion outlay to more than $80 billion in 2012, with more than 45 million Americans now getting food stamps. Food stamp rolls are growing at 75 times the rate of new job creation!
Medicare and Medicaid explosion
Almost in lockstep with America's growing dependence on government-provided food is the growing dependence on free or reduced-price medical care. Medicaid, a combined federal-state program set up to provide health-care benefits to the poor, covered an estimated 82.5 million Americans, or 27 percent of the population, as of late 2011.
An additional 46.5 million were on the Medicare rolls for elderly health care and health-care supplements. That number is rising rapidly as millions of baby boomers reach retirement age.
Medicare rolls are growing due to an estimated 3.6 million retiring baby boomers being added each year. A continued soft economy, with higher than normal unemployment, is producing what some observers are calling a permanent underclass, most of whom rely on Uncle Sam for their health care.
Here, too, widespread fraud and corruption compounds the problem. Medicaid fraud, which usually involves a hospital, nursing home, health-care professional, ambulance service or pharmacy overbilling Medicare, has grown into a $30 billion problem, or roughly 10 percent of the program's cost. State-administered Medicaid programs are especially fraud-ridden. New York, for example, budgets more than $50 billion of its $121 billion state budget on the program, and estimates that fraud costs it as much as $18 billion of that amount.
Decades of dependence on Medicare and Medicaid helped pave the way for the newest health-care entitlement, the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, the first major step towards instituting nationwide socialized medicine.
Working on a largely European model, Obamacare continues to remove health-care decisions from doctors and forces millions of basically healthy Americans to buy health insurance to extend coverage to some 42 million Americans who haven't been covered by any health insurance plan. To encourage participation, Americans earning up to four times the federal poverty level are to be given a federal subsidy to buy insurance.
The law's requirements have polarized Americans unlike virtually anything that has come before it. Millions resent being forced to buy health insurance or facing fines if they fail to do so. And other millions of insured citizens are likewise being forced to turn to government "health exchanges" for coverage at rates much higher than they were paying previously.
Why bother to work?
In the face of generous federal benefits, many Americans who lost jobs during the recession and slow recovery have basically given up looking for work. Some have apparently done the math, asking themselves why they should work when they can have as great or greater equivalent income with food stamps, free health care and unemployment benefits for up to two years.
So it's not surprising that the percentage of the adult population working has fallen to 63 percent, the lowest percentage since 1978. Over the past five years, more than 10 million U.S. adults have left the labor force. It's a bad downward trend, and many economists see no indication this is improving.
Economists blame failure to create jobs and the rapid pace of retirements of baby boomers as two reasons for the falling labor participation rate. And a third reason they now give is more Americans going on Social Security disability, with 8.8 million Americans receiving Social Security Disability benefits—a number that has doubled since 1995.
Could it be that many Americans have simply grown tired of working, or see not working as a more attractive financial alternative?
Major shifts in American attitudes
These trends reflect a fundamental change in attitude. A nation that traditionally prided itself on hard work and self-reliance now looks increasingly to Washington as the source for supplying all needs. Uncle Sam has become the "rich uncle" to many.
Seemingly lost in all this social change is the diminished role of the family. Since the dawn of civilization, people looked first to their family, and then to a lesser extent to their neighbors and community, for help when hungry or sick or destitute.
This strong family and community influence was long a part of America, when rural folks would assist each other in clearing land, building houses and raising crops. Families looked after not only their own, but others as well. If families had to leave home for a time, they could count on neighbors to look after their property.
But the central role of the family began to erode rapidly in the 20th century. Beginning with President Franklin Roosevelt's "New Deal" of the 1930s, American attitudes towards governmental assistance began to change. The Great Depression at that time disrupted the lives of millions, bringing hunger, deprivation, and the loss of homes, farms and businesses. As the Depression dragged on in the early 1930s, Americans began to look to government for a solution.
No longer was the role of the federal government limited to keeping the peace and maintaining national security. Now its job, in the eyes of millions, was also to stamp out poverty, provide old-age pensions and health care, pay for college educations, maintain a basic level of nutrition, support illegitimate children, and on and on. The increasing role of the federal government gained more traction with President Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" of the 1960s, which was promoted as the way to eradicate poverty (in spite of almost $15 trillion spent on anti-poverty programs since then, the U.S. poverty rate remains essentially unchanged).
Over the past 30 to 40 years a country that once prided itself on self-reliance became addicted to government aid. A 2008 study by the Pew Research Center revealed a shift in preference toward a more socially activist role for the federal government, with millions seeing it as government's role to aid the disadvantaged.
The report also noted that this coincided with a diminished role of religion in daily life. More than half said the government should help more needy people even if it adds to the nation's debt. This was up from just 41 percent who felt this way in 1994.
Has America reached a tipping point?
Has America reached a tipping point? Is the nation's growing dependence on government programs—with half of American households getting a check from the government each month—at the point of no return?
At his inauguration in January 1961, newly elected President John F. Kennedy issued a famous challenge to his fellow Americans: "Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country." Sadly, millions have reversed that into "Ask not what you can do for your country—ask what your country can do for you." And to them the answer is—plenty!
Free food, free housing, free cell phones, free education, free health care, free money, and on it goes. So long as it's free, why not?
But as the saying goes, there's no such thing as a free lunch. Eventually the bill comes due. America's national debt recently passed the $17 trillion mark—up from $10.6 trillion only five years earlier. But that figure pales in comparison to the federal government's total unfunded obligations for Medicare and Social Security, currently estimated at $43 trillion to as much as $126 trillion, depending on which set of economic assumptions are plugged in.
At the latter figure, each American taxpayer is on the hook for a staggering $1.1 million! But even at the lower number, each taxpayer's share is some $375,000.
Obviously this is an unsustainable path, driven by far too many people who feel entitled to "free" government benefits paid for by the government forcibly taking from their producing neighbors—and abetted by unscrupulous politicians and government officials who have learned that the sure way to get votes is by promising ever more benefits from the public treasury.
Such things are clearly not God's way. Yes, God commands love toward neighbor, and He instituted laws and instructions designed to care for those in difficult circumstances (see "Dependence, Independence and Helping Those in Need").
But He surely doesn't endorse a society in which half the citizens live off the labors of the other half, with a government incurring massive and unsustainable debt that can realistically never be paid back. This is nothing more than government-endorsed (and enforced) theft—a blatant breaking of the Eighth Commandment, "You shall not steal" (Exodus 20:15).
Where will this end? Sadly, without a major change of heart, the United States will follow the pattern of other great empires that have gone before—disappearing, as the saying goes, not with a bang but with a whimper, victim of its citizens' own spiritual blindness and greed.