The Handout Society As Electoral Strategy

During the recent 2012 election campaign, Mitt Romney was rightly criticized for saying that the 47% of the population then receiving some form of government handout or other would "vote for the president no matter what . . .[and] believe that they are victims."  That statement was clearly confused; far from every one of the 47% who were getting some form of government benefit voted for Obama,, and some of the 47% were among Romney's core constituents.

But on the other hand, the ongoing increase in the number of benefit recipients has to be good for the party promising to continue and increase the benefits.  Since only about 5 million votes separated the candidates by the time all were counted, could the increase in numbers receiving benefits have had something to do with the outcome?

It turns out that the number of benefit recipients in many categories exploded during Obama's first term.  This is particularly notable since the recession officially ended in June 2009, shortly after Obama took office.  Shouldn't the number of benefit recipients have started to go down after that?  But consider what happened in various benefit categories:

Food Stamps.  Now officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program ("SNAP"), this program completely exploded during Obama's first term.  Here is a chart going back to 1975.


The number of recipients had actually gone down during Clinton's second term from around 27 million to 17 million, and then crept back up to about 28 million at the end of the GW Bush administration in 2008.  And then the numbers took off, reaching about 47.7 million by the end of 2012, an increase of almost 20 million in four years to a level far above any precedents.

Why did this happen during a recovery?  Well, one key reason (via CNN) is that the government undertook an advertising program to get people to sign up!  By the way, don't just blame Obama -- it started under W.  But it's hard not to conclude from the chart above that Obama and his team fully realized the electoral benefits of maximizing this giveaway.  It only took about a quarter of those 20 million incremental food stamp recipients in Obama's first 4 years to provide his entire margin of victory.

Are you wondering how so many people are even eligible for food stamps?  It doesn't hurt that lots of things don't count against eligibility, no matter how great their amount.  Exhibit A is equity in a home, and Exhibit B is retirement accounts such as 401(k)s.  You can easily have many millions of dollars in assets and still qualify for food stamps.  As USDA under secretary Kevin Concannon says in the CNN article linked above, "Research has shown that many people -- particularly underserved seniors, working poor, and legal immigrants -- do not understand the requirements of the program."  Or in other words, lots of relatively affluent retired people foolishly thought that if you had half a million dollars of equity in your house and another half a million in retirement accounts, you couldn't possibly be eligible for food stamps; but now that they have been educated by the ads, they feel like dupes for not having signed up earlier.  And how about that other downtrodden category, graduate students?  Yes, another rapidly growing segment of the program; Concannon refers to them as the "working poor."

Disability.  According to figures from the Social Security Administration reported by Investors Business Daily, the number of people added to the Federal disability rolls during Obama's first term (through April 2012) was 5.4 million.  Although the number of disability recipients also increased under both Bushes and under Clinton, IBD reports that the number of applications in 2011 was up 24% compared with 2008.  With food stamps, at least a lot of people eventually get off.  But as IBD reports,

The problem is that few people who get on disability will ever participate in the labor force again. In fact, the vast bulk of those who exit Social Security Disability Insurance do so either because they hit retirement age or died.

Obamaphones.   A viral youtube video late in the campaign had a screaming Obama supporter bragging about her free "Obamaphone" available to all welfare recipients.  Snopes took apart the underlying facts, finding the worst allegations partly true and partly false.  Turns out that the program started as something called "Lifeline" back in the Reagan administration, well before cell phones, to give poor people some access to phone service for emergencies.  Who could be against that?  Best part about it was that it was funded by so-called "universal access fees" paid by incumbent service providers -- a nice off-budget slush fund available when needed for vote buying.  Otherwise known as an irresistible temptation to electoral corruption.  Like the other programs above, it crept up little by little under succeeding presidents, barely noticed, and then exploded under Obama.  According to Snopes, the number of people with "Lifeline" phones grew from 7.1 million in 2008 to 12.5 million in 2012.   There you have yet another incremental 5 million potential votes!  These people weren't taking any chances.

The basic problem here is that all of these things are one form or another of Ponzi schemes.  Will it take an another 30 million or so incremental handout recipients to secure the next election?  How about the one after that?  This can't go on for very long, but it sure can do a lot of damage.