How Many Americans Rely on Government Assistance, Exactly?

Answers to your questions about the news.
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.

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.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

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

TODAY IN SLATE

History

Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
History
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 30 2014 6:00 AM Drive-By Bounty Prudie advises a woman whose boyfriend demands she flash truckers on the highway.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath The Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.