Poster by Mitch Rosenberg via
Poster by Mitch Rosenberg via

Think 47% of all Americans are moochers? Try 96%. Political scientists Suzanne Mettler and John Sides argue in the New York Times that Mitt Romney has grossly underestimated how many U.S. citizens take advantage of government social programs.

The beneficiaries include the rich and the poor, Democrats and Republicans. Almost everyone is both a maker and a taker.

Mettler and Sides draw on nationally representative data from a 2008 survey of Americans about their use of 21 different government social programs, including everything from student loans to Medicare.

What the data reveal is striking: nearly all Americans — 96 percent — have relied on the federal government to assist them. Young adults, who are not yet eligible for many policies, account for most of the remaining 4 percent.

On average, people reported that they had used five social policies at some point in their lives. An individual typically had received two direct social benefits in the form of checks, goods or services paid for by government, like Social Security or unemployment insurance. Most had also benefited from three policies in which government’s role was “submerged,” meaning that it was channeled through the tax code or private organizations, like the home mortgage-interest deduction and the tax-free status of the employer contribution to employees’ health insurance. The design of these policies camouflages the fact that they are social benefits, too, just like the direct benefits that help Americans pay for housing, health care, retirement and college.

The use of such government social programs cuts across all divides, including political party affiliation and class. But ideology does seem to play a role in how people think about their relationship with government programs.

…conservatives were less likely than liberals to respond affirmatively when asked if they had ever used a “government social program,” even when both subsequently acknowledged using the same number of specific policies.

These ideological differences have significant consequences for how government social programs either divide or unite us.

Because ideology influences how we view our own and others’ use of government, Mr. Romney’s remarks may resonate with those who think of themselves as “producers” rather than “moochers” — to use Ayn Rand’s distinction. But this distinction fails to capture the way Americans really experience government. Instead of dividing us, our experiences as both makers and takers ought to bind us in a community of shared sacrifice and mutual support.

For more from Suzanne Mettler on government social programs and the “submerged state,” check out our Office Hours Podcast.