The Problem With Government Handouts

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GOP Presidential Candidate Jeb Bush Campaigns In Las Vegas
Jeb Bush.Photo: Ethan Miller/2015 Getty Images

Let’s talk about the government giving away “free stuff.” It is a persistent, pernicious talking point on the right: that the recipients of food stamps, welfare, Medicaid, insurance subsidies, housing vouchers, even free school lunches are getting their votes paid for and dignity degraded by handouts.

This week, it was Jeb Bush voicing this concern. “Our message is one of hope and aspiration,” Bush told the crowd at a shrimp dinner hosted by the East Cooper Republican Women’s Club in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. “It isn’t one of division and get in line and we’ll take care of you with free stuff.” Similar sound bites have come from Mitt Romney. And Paul Ryan. And Rand Paul. Name a Republican, find a similar line about giveaways, makers and takers, and so on.

There are a few ways to attack this racist, classist whack-a-mole that comes back every campaign cycle. The first is to note that corporations and the wealthy certainly get their fair share of “free stuff,” often by way of tax expenditures that magically make spending programs look like tax reductions. The carried-interest loophole on the earnings of hedge-fund managers? That’s free stuff. The home-mortgage interest deduction? Free stuff. The yacht deduction, only for boats big enough to have a toilet and a sleeping area? The estate-tax exemption sitting at more than $5 million? The deductibility of gambling losses and fancy business dinners? Credits for solar panels and electric vehicles? Yup, all free stuff.

But criticizing rich-people free stuff does not speak to the deeper issue here. Every year, virtually every non-elderly adult in America pays federal taxes — about 95.3 percent of them, to be exact. (The remainder are mostly extremely poor individuals.) And every year, virtually every American gets something back, by way of one government program or another, with the math working out to buoy poor Americans on net. Attacking free stuff and handouts and giveaways is an explicit way of attacking the safety net, then, but also a slippery way of attacking the whole idea of progressivity.

The meme treats the poor as undeserving, rather than deserving. And as such, “free stuff” generally means “stuff going to groups of people that I don’t care about, or groups of people I want to shame for their financial situation.” Never mind that the primary beneficiaries of many safety-net programs are children. (Those tots really do find a way to pay nothing for something, come to think of it.) Never mind that people rarely criticize the elderly, the rich, or the powerful for all the “free stuff” they get.