Americans Increasingly Reliant On Government Aid

Guests

Dennis Cauchon, national reporter, USA Today
Dawn Hawkins, senior policy specialist, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

In 2010, more than 18 percent of the nation's total personal income came from entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, unemployment benefits and other programs, according to an analysis by USA Today. Wages made up the lowest share since government tracking began in 1929.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

According to an analysis by USA Today, Americans relied more on government assistance in 2010 than ever before. More than 18 percent of the nation's total personal income came from federal programs such as Social Security, Medicare, food stamps and unemployment benefits.

The other side of that equation is that the percentage of personal income from wages is just over 50 percent, the lowest share since government tracking began in 1929; all of this two years after the recession officially ended.

If you receive government assistance, who are you, and what don't we understand about your situation? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, from gangster to gangsta rap to TV detective. Ice-T joins us to talk about his new memoir. But first, the dependence on Uncle Sam. Let's begin with a phone call, and we'll start with Maureen(ph), Maureen calling us from Milford in Connecticut.

MAUREEN: (Caller): Yes, good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon, Maureen.

MAUREEN: I'm calling to comment on the discussion. The stigma attached to being part of the Medicaid program is horrible. The process for applying is humiliating.

But some of us who have worked our whole lives find it necessary to do so because we've been bumped from insurance. In my case, I have been MS, and my medicine costs in excess of $4,000, and there's no other way around it.

CONAN: You say humiliating. In what way?

MAUREEN: If anyone has had the unfortunate experience of going to the state office to apply for any kind of help from the state, you see it's nothing more than cattle in a large room, with people calling. It's the only area, actually, where instead of using a number, people still are called by their names.

It's horrible. You can't get service in a timely manner. People are constantly losing your form or your application, and I know the people that work there are overwhelmed, and that's more than true. They're understaffed, they're stressed, and as a result of that, service is terrible, the process is humiliating.

CONAN: How important is that assistance for you?

MAUREEN: Actually, I wouldn't be able to receive my medication without it. I'm on Medicare. I'm 68 years old. I'm on Medicare. But Medicare does not cover all the medicines. So Medicaid and Title D, pardon me Title B, is necessary, and they go hand-in-hand.

But in order to receive those services, you have to go and apply, and the application process is awful.

CONAN: And how do you react when you hear debate in Washington, D.C., over the future of those programs?

MAUREEN: I'm scared, to tell you the truth, because it's - at this point, I'm earning, or receiving, after a long life of work, $18,000 a year, and I'm trying to stay afloat. If that's - if that amount is lowered or raised, I might not be eligible. I'm right on the edge there. And what am I to do? I mean, multiple sclerosis is a disease that's very expensive.

CONAN: Maureen, we wish you the best of luck. Thanks very much for the call.

MAUREEN: Thanks. Bye now.

CONAN: USA Today reporter Dennis Cauchon joins us now from member station WOSU Public Media in Columbus, Ohio. And it's nice to have you with us today.

Mr. DENNIS CAUCHON (National Reporter, USA Today): It's good to be with you.

CONAN: And that caller is hardly alone. You report in your article that it's -there are - that federal aid makes up a greater proportion of our income than ever before in history. How come?

Mr. CAUCHON: Part of it is the number of people on Medicaid is also at a historic high, partly because of demographic trends but also because of policy to deal with the uninsured population or expensive health care population through the Medicaid program.

CONAN: So people like Maureen, who have MS, as she points out, it's an expensive disease.

Mr. CAUCHON: Exactly.

CONAN: There is also the fact that, well, there are a lot more people retiring and a lot more about to retire.

Mr. CAUCHON: And that comes through Medicare, through Social Security and also through Medicaid. A lot of Medicaid expenses is for nursing homes of people who are elderly.

CONAN: And you point out in your piece it's surprising to see these numbers two years into our recovery. What has changed?

Mr. CAUCHON: What's kind of surprising is how things haven't changed that much, especially if you look at the wages. You would think nearly two years into a recovery, wages are going up, especially as a percentage of our total income.

In fact, they're continuing to slowly erode, which is befuddling and potentially problematic because what it comes out to is wages and the taxes on those wages pay for Medicaid and Medicare. So it's sort of another illustration of a potential imbalance in the system.

CONAN: You say a little over 50 percent comes from wages. Eighteen percent comes from the federal government. That leaves about 30 percent. Where does that come from?

Mr. CAUCHON: Investment income is about 15 percent, proprietor's income, which is basically business income, is another 10 percent and a few other smaller categories.

CONAN: When you say business income, these are small businesses, self-employed?

Mr. CAUCHON: Basically, it's if you own the business. It could be anything from a fellow who's a single person in a carpet-cleaning company to a doctor who owns a larger practice. But it's not corporations.

Also, 10 percent of income is benefits in the private sector, whether it's pension benefits. That doesn't count as wages, but it counts as income. So private medical insurance, as well.

CONAN: New Yorkers receive more government aid per person than any other state, according to the USA Today analysis. West Virginia comes a close second, much of that do to the state's aging population, more people there collecting Social Security and disability benefits. But more people are also seeking other government assistance like food stamps.

Dawn Hawkins is the senior policy specialist for what's called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP. She joins us from her office at the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources in Charleston. Nice to have you with us today.

Ms. DAWN HAWKINS (Senior Policy Specialist, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program): Hi.

CONAN: And are you seeing more people coming into your door asking for help?

Ms. HAWKINS: We are.

CONAN: What kind of numbers are we talking about?

Ms. HAWKINS: Well, I don't have any specific numbers of the increase, but we have seen an increase in the amount of cases that we're carrying.

CONAN: A number of increases in the number of cases. What kind of stories are you hearing from these applicants? Are they new to government assistance?

Ms. HAWKINS: Some of the customers visiting the local DHHR offices are customers who have never been reliant on the public system before. This group is traditionally a little more educated, but they're not quite familiar with the application process.

CONAN: And this is - the application process, this is an education.

Ms. HAWKINS: Yes.

CONAN: Are they out of work, first-time applicants, rural, urban, what?

Ms. HAWKINS: We seem to think that the increased unemployment is a major contributing factor to the growth in the number of West Virginians depending on SNAP and becoming eligible for TANF and Medicaid.

CONAN: What was that first program you mentioned?

Ms. HAWKINS: That would be TANF. That's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

CONAN: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Ms. HAWKINS: Right.

CONAN: And is this profile shifting over years? You mentioned more education.

Ms. HAWKINS: Yes, it is shifting.

CONAN: And becoming more rural, more urban, what?

Ms. HAWKINS: Well, West Virginia is pretty rural compared to - I believe your number one state was New York.

CONAN: Well, New York City is highly urban, but the rest of the state is -obviously there are some big cities upstate, too, but there are a lot of rural areas in New York state, too.

I wonder: What do you think has caused this recent increase? Has it been the employment situation? Is that going up or down?

Ms. HAWKINS: We do believe it's because of the unemployment.

CONAN: And that's going up in West Virginia?

Ms. HAWKINS: The unemployment is rising.

CONAN: There are a lot of misconceptions about who receives assistance from the government. What do you think people don't understand about those who are receiving government assistance?

Ms. HAWKINS: I think it could be your next-door neighbor.

CONAN: It's interesting, that first caller, Maureen, also talked about a situation not in your state but in Connecticut where she said Medicare - excuse me, Medicaid workers were overwhelmed. Are you afraid that your offices can be overwhelmed and sometimes not provide the level of service you'd like to?

Ms. HAWKINS: I know that we work very hard to administer the federal programs. And the caseloads are increasing.

CONAN: I wonder, as federal workers, do you see some stigma? Do you get some resentment of people thinking you've got cushy government jobs?

Ms. HAWKINS: Actually, we are state workers. They are state-administered. So we're state workers.

CONAN: All right. Dawn Hawkins, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Ms. HAWKINS: Thanks.

Dawn Hawkins is the senior policy specialist for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. She joined us from her office at the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources in Charleston.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go to Rudy(ph), Rudy with us from Cincinnati.

RUDY (Caller): Yes, sir. Two years ago, I was making $70,000 a year in the auto industry. I have a college degree. You know, I had a back injury at the auto industry company I worked for. And between the injury and being grossly overqualified for everything I apply for, I can't get a job.

Three weeks, I had to apply for the welfare, and between welfare and currently living off student loans working on my master's is how I'm getting by.

And I'm really angry with Congress, you know, arguing about a $6 billion tax break for the oil industry when I'm barely getting by and barely feeding my children, you know.

I've got documentation to show I've applied for 2,300 jobs in the last two years.

CONAN: You've exhausted your unemployment benefits?

RUDY: Yeah, unemployment has run out. I've exhausted - my 401(k)s are all liquidated. My savings is gone. I filed for bankruptcy. You know, I've gone through a divorce. It's been horrible. It's fundamentally changed the way I look at this country and the world.

CONAN: And if part of your income is student loans, well, you know that's going to come around.

RUDY: Yeah, going to have to pay that off one day.

CONAN: And what are you studying?

RUDY: I'm getting a master's in public administration. I'm going to take this experience and go back in to work and help those who may be in this position in the future.

CONAN: Public - what kind of a job would you hope to get?

RUDY: Looking to be a policy analyst.

CONAN: A policy analyst. And figure out things that might help people in your situation in the future.

RUDY: Yes, sir, exactly.

CONAN: Well, good luck to you. We appreciate it.

RUDY: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: We're talking today about the situation of people who are on government assistance. According to a study by USA Today, more of our income derives from the federal government, more than 18 percent, than at any time in American history.

If that's you, who are you? How did you get there, and what does it mean for your life? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We hear a lot about the economic recovery. The recession officially ended nearly two years ago. Some companies are beginning to hire. There is economic growth. Even so, many don't feel it.

An analysis by USA Today showed Americans rely more on government assistance than at any time in U.S. history. Dennis Cauchon crunched those numbers for USA Today. He's a national reporter for that paper. We've posted a link to his article at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

If you receive government assistance, who are you? What don't we understand about your situation? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Dennis Cauchon is with us from WOSU, our member station in Columbus. And Dennis, there's some interesting regional variances. The Northeastern states seem to get - more people in Northeastern states rely on federal aid than elsewhere.

Mr. CAUCHON: Yeah, Northeastern states are more affluent. So as a percentage of their income, they - benefits are less - government benefits are less important. But on a per-person basis, they're a lot more.

And when I was looking at the data after I wrote the article, I realized that Vermont, Maine, New York all had very high per-capita spending on health care, and it's - I realized only after the fact it's because Massachusetts gets all the attention, but all of these states have made real significant efforts to insure the uninsured.

So the extra cost is also reflecting something of value. They're getting more and paying more, but they're getting something of important value too.

CONAN: Who's at the bottom of the list?

Mr. CAUCHON: The young states. If you look at it overall, basically it's a transfer of income from young states that tend to be Western to older states that tend to be Southern and Eastern. It shouldn't surprise you because Social Security and Medicare are the big parts. But places like Utah and Colorado really get back relatively little, and it's largely due to their affluence and partly because they're so young.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Tina(ph), Tina with us from St. Louis.

TINA (Caller): Hi, I am 54 years old. I have a Bachelor's degree and recently went back to get a Master's, but I'm a teacher. I've been unemployed for the past two years. I apply for jobs about, you know, three or four jobs per week, and I have yet to be hired.

And there's two parts to unemployment. One is that you have to go out and apply for the jobs, and the other part is that somebody has to hire you. And I don't know. I think maybe part of the problem is that if they can hire someone on a lower pay scale, you know, a newcomer, they can pay them $10,000 to $20,000 less.

Or I'm willing to take a lower-paying job. I'm willing to work at Wal-Mart or Target, but I don't get hired there, I think, because they think I'm not going to stick around very long, possibly.

CONAN: Yet you also look at the statistics, and it doesn't look like education - a lot of people laying teachers off.

TINA: Right, right. So it's very difficult. And you know, I've gone through all my unemployment benefits. I've gone through all four tiers, and there's no more tiers. I've tried(ph) them all. There are no more.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Sorry, I didn't mean to laugh at your situation.

TINA: Yeah, no, that's all you can do. You know? I mean, you have to have humor. But it's very hard to have a positive outlook, you know?

CONAN: Where are you going to go from here? Might you try to move elsewhere?

TINA: Yes, I have been applying for jobs, you know, with a second - post-secondary education field elsewhere, and I've got some out there that I'm still waiting to hear from. So hopefully something will come through.

But in the meantime, I'm living at my sister's house. She's been supporting me. And I have rented my house out just to keep it from foreclosing. And you know, I dont know. Something just has to - something has to come through here.

CONAN: We'll keep our fingers crossed for you, Tina.

TINA: All right, thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much. And Dennis Cauchon, I wonder, she's staying with her sister. There are more than a few young people who are getting assistance from their parents. Any way to calculate how much of the personal income that makes up?

Mr. CAUCHON: If you're a young person staying with your parent and not holding a job, it's basically zero. It's only counted as your parents' income. Interestingly, her rental income is counted as an income. About three percent of personal income is from the rent. But that's really a small factor. It may have gone up a little because of the housing problems. More people are renting.

But basically the biggies are wages, benefits, government transfers, and investment income.

CONAN: Here's an email from John(ph) in Mountain View, California: I finished an internship to be a special ed teacher a year and a half ago but failed to complete a couple of classes because of problems with Type 1 diabetes.

I started collecting unemployment but was unable to afford to finish my classwork. Ultimately, I lost my left leg just as my COBRA ran out. I'm applying for Medicaid so I can get a prosthetic.

Meanwhile, I still have to look for work so I can continue to get an unemployment check. It's very difficult and very depressing.

Let's see if we get Richard on the line, Richard with us from Duke Setter in Pennsylvania.

RICHARD (Caller): Yeah, I just got notified today by the state of Pennsylvania that I'm done with all my extensions and everything, and I just can't see anything that - they're always talking about jobs, jobs, jobs. That's the biggest joke I've ever heard of.

I mean, up here in McKean and Potter County, we have lost so many people that have just said to heck with it and moved out. So I guess I'm going to have to be one of the ones to go to the state office and feel embarrassed about asking for help.

CONAN: Feel embarrassed.

RICHARD: Pardon me?

CONAN: Feel embarrassed.

RICHARD: Oh, yes. Yes, I've - I'll be 61. I wish I was going to be 62. Then I'd go on Social Security. But I'm still quite a ways away from that magic number.

CONAN: And what did - when you were working, what did you do?

RICHARD: I worked at a furniture factory.

CONAN: And a long career in making furniture?

RICHARD: Well, I was there seven years.

CONAN: And do you have - if you do get Social Security, have you put in enough to get a substantial monthly payment?

RICHARD: Oh, yeah, yeah. But I still have to wait another year, year and a half to even apply for it.

CONAN: Richard, good luck.

RICHARD: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Here's an email from Sara(ph) in Pocatello, Idaho: I'm currently a full-time college student receiving food stamp benefits. I work 40 hours a week and struggle to make ends meet. Food stamps allow me to feed myself with healthy foods rather than a staple diet of Ramen Noodles, Ramen Noodles.

When I began receiving food stamps, I felt the sting of the food-stamp stigma, but now I've rationalized the help I receive because I'm over $15,000 in debt from federal loans. I pay $600 a year in interest on those loans.

It's very difficult for someone in my situation, as I am not yet 25 and cannot apply for Pell grants. If government aid is becoming a problem, perhaps reform should begin with focus placed on my generation.

And Dennis Cauchon, is there any way to break out generationally who's receiving what?

Mr. CAUCHON: I actually looked at it because education, which is Pell grants and scholarships, is one of the categories, and it's small. I mean it's just a fraction of the total amount of money. Your callers are really illustrating where the safety net money is going, and the safety net is functioning as a safety net.

If I make one other point: In the Depression, if you realize the real pain of that is because these government benefits averaged only three percent of income, whereas today they're 18 percent, and they never exceeded 4.5 percent.

So just think about how that, in numbers, applies to the real economic distress of the 1930s.

CONAN: And unemployment real bad, we think, at about nine percent, just under 25 percent during the Depression.

Mr. CAUCHON: Correct.

CONAN: Let's get Virginia on the line, Virginia with us from Series(ph) in California.

VIRGINIA (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

VIRGINIA: I'm calling because I work at a center where I help people apply for different types of state programs, and (technical difficulties) that one of the things that has increased is the (technical difficulties) of the SNAP program, (technical difficulties)...

CONAN: That's the food-stamp program, yeah.

VIRGINIA: I think that this is because of the great education programs that are going. I don't know if it's just in California or if it is on a national level, but I have seen grants given out to different organizations to educate the community about the benefits and the myths, you know, debunk myths and just tell them all the great things that the SNAP program does for them, because so many people are afraid that they're going to be charged, that they're going to be reported to immigration. They just have so many myths and so many ideas in their heads.

So I am really glad that whoever decided to educate the community is doing so and in such a great manner, and it's really upped the applicants for the SNAP program.

CONAN: All right. Thank you very much, Virginia.

VIRGINIA: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Dennis Cauchon, as you look at these numbers, I guess there's no way to calculate what she's talking about, that more people who are eligible are applying. But is there any suggestion of there are a lot of people eligible who don't apply?

Mr. CAUCHON: Yes. And in fact the Obama administration has specifically tried to increase the percentage of people who qualify, who get it, and that's one thing that raises the cost as well the effectiveness of the program.

And when you talk about the SNAP program, it tells a little bit about the social stigma and how the name changes. That's what we call food stamps or your - Dawn earlier was talking about TANF, which is welfare as we know it. It's sort of cash welfare, which is really - has almost been eliminated since welfare reform in 1996. But people perceive it as being large, even though it's not.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Brooke(ph), and Brooke with us from Nashville.

BROOKE (Caller): Yes, hello.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

BROOKE: Yeah. Say, I lost my job back in 2009, through outsourcing. And in the meanwhile I went blind. And it took about seven months for me to get onto disability, and that was relatively a short time because blindness is verifiable. But I'd also like to mention that even after you get on disability, it takes a minimum of two years before you qualify for Medicare. And I'd also like to mention that I'm very grateful for a country that does look after the weak and the poor.

CONAN: When you mention disability, that's Social Security disability?

BROOKE: Yes. That's correct.

CONAN: And have you found that people in the government offices that work with you - I know bureaucracy can be frustrating - but do they help or hinder?

BROOKE: Very helpful, very helpful, very compassionate. And when, you know, when I first went on unemployment, I also felt shame. And, you know, I would also like to agree with Rudy that it has fundamentally changed my view of policy and politics. Prior to having to go onto unemployment for the first time in my life, I was Dead Elephant Republican. I'd vote for a Republican no matter what. But - and my grandparents despised Franklin Delano. But now that I look back and I'm in the position I am, I have sympathy for that point of view and for social reform and welfare.

CONAN: And the state of Tennessee, have they been helpful?

BROOKE: Well, I'll have to say this. You know, I'm a single father - well, half-time father. I share custody with my ex-wife, but she has primary custody. So being single, I'm not eligible for any type of aid with health or utilities or food stamps.

CONAN: Does that seem to be unfair to you?

BROOKE: Well, my son and I and our dogs live on about $80 a month for food, and that's all that we can afford right now. And it seems a little unfair because they don't take into account that I do have my son half the time, although, you know, I don't get to claim him on taxes.

CONAN: Brooke, thank you for the call. And good luck to you and your son.

BROOKE: Thank you. I appreciate it.

CONAN: We're talking today about the increasing percentage of personal income that comes from government aid. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And our guest is Dennis Cauchon, who crunched the numbers. He's the national reporter for USA Today. Again, if you'd like to see his articles, you can go to our website, npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. There's a link there.

Dennis, as you hear these personal stories, you're piece is about the numbers overall. Yet these stories, people on retirement, on Medicare, MediCal -Medicaid as well - getting Social Security disability - it puts a human face on these numbers.

Mr. CAUCHON: It really does enrich your understanding of the programs because it's easy to step back and say, why, there's 45 million people on Medicaid, so there's many different stories. But what exactly are those stories and what are the meaning?

CONAN: Is there a difference? Do people perceive - and I'm not sure you can measure this. But do people perceive different government programs differently? Is Medicare perceived differently than Medicaid? Is Social Security perceived differently than unemployment?

Mr. CAUCHON: Very much so. Social Security, to a lot of people, and particularly people receiving it, like my mother, perceive it as a pension program. They paid into it and they get it back - Medicare for the elderly, Medicaid for the poor, which is why you hear so much about welfare as we know it, even though it almost doesn't exists. As your previous caller indicated, if you're an able-bodied male of working age, it's very hard to get cash payments from the government, and they're very limited.

So these - the complex perception of these program from a government standpoint, from a budget standpoint, so a dime for Social Security affects the budget the same way as a dime for Medicare or Medicaid. But the politics, perception and image is quite different.

CONAN: Here's an email from Kimberly in Evansville, Indiana. I'm not currently on any aid. But when I was pregnant, I was on pregnancy Medicaid. I work full time and have insurance through my employer but I have a high deductible. My doctor's office actually suggested I apply for it as a secondary insurance to help me pay my deductible. I was embarrassed about it, but it did help me keep me out of debt and out of collections.

Let's see if we go next to Dale, Dale with us from Vallejo in California.

DALE (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

DALE: Thank you.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

DALE: Yeah. I just want to point out, currently I work full time. And like other people, I still receive some sort of assistance, but I mean I receive different, you know, food stamps and things like that when I've been out of work, but for the most part have worked all of my life. And I think it's interesting that, like you pointed out, we see some forms, like Social Security, as a pension that we paid into. But for people who have worked, Medicaid, ironically, we pay into the same program every month that we take out of - that goes to WIC and other things. And I don't think that there should be any shame. When you look at our economy, that should say a lot about it, that people who work and do all they can and are grateful to have a job still have to receive assistance - sometimes.

CONAN: When you say WIC, women's, infant - women, infants and children.

DALE: Correct. But currently I work. I'm a single mother, also a veteran. And I receive assistance for child care for my son. I couldn't do it any other way. I drive about 25 miles to work each day. With gas prices right now, it's harder than ever to get up, for people who are downsized. Expect that percentage that you see will - it's going to retain and possibly even slow.

CONAN: Well, Dale, thanks very much for the call. Good luck.

DALE: Thank you. Bye.

CONAN: Any way to project these figures into the future, Dennis Cauchon?

Mr. CAUCHON: Very much. Social Security, Medicare and even Medicaid, these -the government puts out projections. And that's the disturbing thing, because we have effectively made promises that there's no obvious way for us to pay. But they're things of great value, as these callers indicate.

CONAN: Dennis Cauchon, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. CAUCHON: Thank you.

CONAN: Dennis Cauchon, a national reporter for USA Today. He joined us from member station WOSU in Columbus, Ohio.

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