Heritage’s “Dependency Index” and the Art of Ledgerdemain

If you wander around conservative news or opinion sites today, you will probably see references to the Heritage Foundation’s latest edition of its “Dependency Index,” supposedly an empirical analysis of how many Americans “depend” on government to one extent or another.

If you have the time, you should wander through this turgid document, in which charts and graphs are far outweighed by agitprop. You will notice right away that although the “Index” supposedly deals with “dependency” via odd measurements of the number of people somehow receiving government benefits, the text places heavy, heavy weight on the “lucky ducky” meme that probably reached its apex last year when Rick Perry cited is as a major reason he was running for president. You know, the “nearly half of Americans don’t pay federal income taxes” bit that turns a temporary recession-related spike in the number of people with no federal income tax liability into a vast turning point in U.S. social, cultural and political life, without, of course, noting the huge federal payroll tax burden on working families, not to mention regressive state and local levies. Ragged as it is, the “lucky ducky” hypothesis enables the Heritage folk to paint their lurid Randian picture of a nation in which parasites are voting themselves an ever-higher percentage of the hard-earned wealth of virtuous job-creators.

But there’s an even more interesting bit of ledgerdemain going on in this report: endless hand-wringing over the socialist policies of the Obama administration nestled among data points that show increased federal spending (particularly since the Great Recession began) mainly being attributable to higher reliance on federal safety net programs that have not been significantly changed at all since 2008 (with the exception of some temporary stimulus measures aimed mainly at preventing radical reductions in Medicaid eligibility, and a boost in housing assistance–also temporary–for rather obvious reasons).

When you step back from the agitprop, it’s increasingly obvious that Heritage is suggesting that it is the New Deal/Great Society programs which are causing the upward creep in dependency they deplore, not anything in particular that “socialist” presidents have imposed in recent decades. The main case the report implicitly makes, if you adopt its assumption that tax cuts and defense spending do not contribute to the country’s fiscal problems, is that we just can’t afford the basic safety net programs any more.

Without a great deal of notice, Mitch Daniels, a man that a lot of Republicans would like to be their presidential nominee this year, came out and said just that in a major speech about a year ago. Problem is, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are intensely popular programs, even among Republican voters. So while the occasional pol like Daniels will slip up and say what he’s thinking about the radical changes in domestic policy that conservatives deem necessary to save the nation from rapacious lucky duckies, the Heritage approach of burying that toxic conclusion in misdirection and skewed data is far more typical.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.