Over the past 58 years, voters have consistently elected presidents, senators and congressman who promised to cut government spending, but it has never happened, not even once.
Many Republicans talk of an entitlement mentality that threatens the character and finances of the United States. In their view, the problem is that too many voters feel entitled to goodies provided by the government and financed by taxpayers.
It is true that so-called entitlement programs are growing as a share of the federal budget and the national economy. Along with spending on national defense and interest on the federal debt, spending on entitlement programs consumes the overwhelming majority of the federal budget. But a close look at the data shows that it’s not a voter sense of entitlement that is driving the process. Quite the contrary.
The two biggest entitlement programs — Social Security and Medicare — are seen by voters as trust funds they pay into during their working lives and then get back in their retirement years. That’s what President Franklin D. Roosevelt sold voters back in 1935. He wanted the “contributors” to have a “legal, moral and political right to collect their pensions.” That’s what voters still want today. Seventy-three percent believe the best way for the program to operate is to protect the trust funds and make sure there is enough tax revenue to pay the promised benefits. Just 10 percent want to scrap this approach and have the government pay benefits out of the general operating budget.
There are problems with the public perception, of course, starting with the fact that the way our politicians have defined “trust funds” is fraudulent. But those problems reflect the failings and deceptions of politicians rather than voters. In Social Security and Medicare, voters are not looking for a handout. They are looking for a return on money invested.