Debunking the “Entitlement Society” Myth

Contrary to claims that government benefit programs are creating a dependent class of Americans who are losing the desire to work and would rather collect government benefits than find a job, a major report we issued today finds that these programs’ benefits go overwhelmingly to people who are elderly, disabled, or members of working households.

As it states:

Contrary to "Entitlement Society" Rhetoric, Over Nine-Tenths of Entitlement Benefits Go to Elderly, Disabled, or Working Households

Some conservative critics of federal social programs, including leading presidential candidates, are sounding an alarm that the United States is rapidly becoming an “entitlement society” in which social programs are undermining the work ethic and creating a large class of Americans who prefer to depend on government benefits rather than work.  A new CBPP analysis of budget and Census data, however, shows that more than 90 percent of the benefit dollars that entitlement and other mandatory programs spend go to assist people who are elderly, seriously disabled, or members of working households — not to able-bodied, working-age Americans who choose not to work.  This figure has changed little in the past few years.

In a December 2011 op-ed, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney warned ominously of the dangers that the nation faces from the encroachment of the “Entitlement Society,” predicting that in a few years, “we will have created a society that contains a sizable contingent of long-term jobless, dependent on government benefits for survival.”  “Government dependency,” he wrote, “can only foster passivity and sloth.”  Similarly, former senator Rick Santorum said that recent expansions in the “reach of government” and the spending behind them are “systematically destroying the work ethic.” . . .

Such beliefs are starkly at odds with the basic facts regarding social programs, the analysis finds.

Our analysis covers Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, SNAP (formerly known as the Food Stamp Program), SSI, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the school lunch program, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the refundable component of the Child Tax Credit.

The only major entitlement programs that are not included are veterans’ programs and military and civil service retirement, which critics presumably do not have in mind when they warn of the dangers of the “entitlement society” in fomenting dependency and sloth.  In any event, including these programs doesn’t change the above 91 percent figure.

The data dispel several other common misperceptions.  For example:

  • Contrary to claims that entitlements take heavily from the middle class to give to people at the bottom or shower benefits on the very wealthy, the middle 60 percent of the population receives close to 60 percent of the entitlement benefits, while the top 5 percent of the population receives about 3 percent of the benefits.
  • Non-Hispanic whites receive slightly more than their proportionate share of entitlement benefits.  They accounted for 64 percent of the population in 2010 and received 69 percent of the entitlement benefits.

Click here for the full report.

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More About Arloc Sherman

Arloc Sherman

Sherman is a Senior Researcher focusing on family income trends, income support policies, and the causes and consequences of poverty.

Full bio | Blog Archive | Research archive at

8 Comments Add Yours ↓

Comments are listed in reverse chronological order.

  1. Dennis #

    “Old Age and Survivors INSURANCE Trust Fund.” Your inclusion of Social Security as an equivalent entitlement to SNAP, Medicaid, etc., is deceptive but typical.

  2. 2

    I think when people criticize the “Entitlement Society”, they do not consider Social Security or Medicare to be part of it. And that’s because people are paying into those programs throughout their working lives. So any payments they receive later in life they do not consider “entitlement” but rather benefits they’ve EARNED. They fact that those programs aren’t necessarily solvent long-term, well, they may conveniently ignore that, or if they’re aware of it even blame a nebulous government incompetence for that.

    I believe when people speak of the Entitlement Society they are usually referring, instinctively, to means-tested programs. Where people are receiving benefits they haven’t directly earned through working. It was particularly interesting then to see as part of your analysis that even when you isolate mean-tested programs, “the percentage of benefits going to the elderly, the disabled, or working households remains high at 83 percent.”

    Thank you – very interesting.

  3. Connie Bacon #

    Thank you so much for this article. Your clarity is appreciated!

  4. Matt Grogger #

    I wish I understood why everyone keeps calling these programs “entitlements”. Social security would be self sustaining if the government hadn’t spent all of the money participants had contributed from their paychecks. The money was taken in exchange for “IOU’s” and now the congress does not have the money to redeem them. It is a classic case of governmental mismanagement. Medicare is in a similiar situation, except medical costs have increased far faster than projected when the payroll tax for medicare was established. It is clear that our legistalors etc. don’t have even a basic understanding of Econ 101.

  5. Flo Baker #

    Just the facts… that is what I like. Statistics don’t lie, but interpretations do. Thanks for clearing this up with the real numbers.

    • bill #

      I’m sure you won’t post this since it goes against your “report”. We are now going to call tax credits “spending”? How about including Social Security in your redistribution programs? People pay into this their whole lives and expect to have the government uphold the contract. To include this with all of the other redistribution is utterly dishonest. If you want to lie like this you have to get better at it. This is too easy to spot.

      • @Bill #

        Bill, as it says above, Social Security was included. “Our analysis covers Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, SNAP (formerly known as the Food Stamp Program), SSI, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the school lunch program, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the refundable component of the Child Tax Credit.”

  6. George Renaud #

    Ever since I retired on my stock options, rents, royalties and interest payments I haven’t felt like doing anything but travel, eat at restaurants, stay at 5 star hotels, sun at the pool or beach, ski, and see the local girls. I have been working so hard on my itinerary for my trip to Thailand that I haven’t even been able to pick up my laundry at the hotel. I finally had to get room service to deliver it to me. My Social Security is directly deposited into one of my savings accounts so thank goodness I don’t have to go to the bank to cash it. Those people taking advantage of the system by getting food stamps, welfare etc., are using my taxes to furbish their luxurious lifestyles.

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