How Many Americans Rely on Government Assistance, Exactly?

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Sept. 18 2012 1:07 PM

Exactly How Many Americans Are Dependent on the Government?

Fact-checking Mitt Romney’s 47 percent claim.

Mitt Romney speaks to the press in Costa Mesa, California, on Monday.
Is Mitt Romney right about his "47 percent" claim?

Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images.

Mitt Romney told a group of campaign contributors in May that 47 percent of Americans pay no income taxes and “believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it” from the government. Romney is basically correct on the tax claim. But what about his government-assistance estimate: Do 47 percent of Americans really receive direct government aid?

Sort of, but they’re probably not the people he had in mind. About 49 percent of Americans live in households that receive some form of government benefits, according to the libertarian Mercatus Center at George Mason University, based on data from 2010.* Not all of those people, however, are dependent on those benefits, as Romney implied. A significant proportion of government assistance comes in the form of Social Security and Medicare, for which eligibility is based on age rather than need. Considering only “means-tested” programs, such as food stamps, Medicaid, and housing assistance, around 35 percent of Americans live in households that benefit from government assistance.

Romney complained about health care, food aid, and housing assistance, in that order—and that’s precisely how the programs line up in terms of total beneficiaries. If you receive only one form of means-tested government assistance, it’s probably Medicaid. In 2010, 26 percent of Americans lived in households that received heath care benefits through the program. The 2010 Affordable Care Act sought to increase that number significantly, planning to add 16 million people to the Medicaid rolls by 2019. The new law would have pushed the percentage of U.S. households receiving means-tested government assistance toward 40 percent. The Supreme Court, however, struck down that portion of the law, making it voluntary, and states are now deciding whether to participate.

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The next largest means-tested government aid program is food stamps. Fifteen percent of the U.S. population, or more than 46 million, receive help through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Around half that number participate in the Women, Infants, and Children program, which also provides food aid. (Some households receive assistance from both programs.)

Compared with Medicaid and food stamps, housing assistance is pretty rare. As of 2010, just 4 percent of Americans received rental assistance or lived in government-subsidized housing.

Health care assistance is far more common than food or housing aid because Medicaid isn’t really a poverty-relief program. A child in New York state, for example, may be eligible for government-funded health care if his family’s household income is less than four times the federal poverty level, or $92,200 for a family of four. Many other states offer Medicaid to adults and children at double or triple the poverty level. In North Dakota, the most restrictive Medicaid state, the income limit for child health insurance is 1.6 times the federal poverty level. By contrast, you can’t receive food stamps if your net income exceeds the federal poverty level. As for housing, New York, one of the more generous states, limits its Section 8 housing aid to families of four earning less than $38,400, less than half the maximum income for the state’s children’s health insurance.

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Correction, Sept. 18, 2012: This article originally stated that the Mercatus Center is at George Washington University. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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