The Growth of Dependency on Government Threatens the Future of American Democracy

William Beach /

Today marks the seventh year that we have published the Index of Dependence on Government. And, for seven years running, our Index shows growing dependence. The Index now stands at 240, up from a value of 19 in 1962, or a nearly 13 fold increase since the Kennedy administration. The rate of growth, however, actually has increased over the last eight years. That period saw the second highest rate of growth in dependency creating programs: since 2001, the Index has increased 31 percent. Most disturbing of all, all of the evidence points to even more rapid increases in dependency ahead, which well could threaten democratic government.

From virtually the first day of his presidency, Barack Obama and his top deputies have advanced programs and initiatives that deepen and expand American citizens’ dependency on government. From new federal programs designed to boost economic activity to health care reform that could place the U.S. government at the center of the nation’s health care system, the central thrust of policy since January 2009 has been to increase Americans’ daily dependency on Washington.

However, the rapid expansion of dependency-creating programs did not begin with Barack Obama’s inauguration. Indeed, President Obama inherited substantial momentum toward greater dependency on government from the George W. Bush Administration and prior governments. President Bush’s years saw growth in all dependency creating categories, but particularly in programs aimed at health, education, and working-age income support.

Even more disturbing is the confluence of growth in the index with increases in the percentage of taxpayers who pay no taxes and Congress’s control over spending. The percentage who pay no taxes jumped from 21.3 percent in 1980 to 34 percent in 2008. In 1980, 20 million tax filers paid nothing; in 2008, 48 million paid nothing. This number will growth dramatically next year when the Index counts for the first time taxpayers who took advantage of Obama era credits, such as Making Work Pay and the first-time homebuyers credits.

Combine these two indexes with the Steuerle-Roeper Fiscal Democracy Index, and you have a perfect storm for the future of our republican form of government. The Fiscal Democracy Index measures the percent of revenues not allocated by previous Congresses to mandatory spending. In short, it measure the control that Congress has over outlays. This Index nearly hit zero in 2009 and is forecasted to be steadily below zero in 10 years.

The steady growth of dependency creating program, particularly the so-called entitlement programs, and the equally steady shrinking number of taxpayers who have any financial stake in the government threaten rapid growth in mandatory, dependency programs and our very democracy. Are Americans closing in on a tipping point that endangers the workings of their form of government? If citizens can vote ever greater outlays for their income, health, housing, education, and food support; will the growth of government overwhelm the delicate political balances between those citizens who provide the means for helping other citizens in need?