Growth of Government Assistance Adds to National Debt


Chart.People on Govt AssistanceBy Michael Sandoval

The Heritage Foundation

More than 41 percent of the U.S. population is “enrolled in at least one federal assistance program,” adding tens of billions of dollars to the national debt each year, according to new research by The Heritage Foundation’s Patrick Tyrrell and William W. Beach.

That means that a startling number of people in the United States draw income from money their family earns as well as money transferred to them from U.S. taxpayers via some form of federal assistance spending, according to the report from the Center for Data Analysis at Heritage.

The rate of growth of those receiving federal assistance spending grew 62 percent from 1988 to 2011.

Those government expenditures help drive the deficit and add to the perilous federal debt, now approaching 100 percent of GDP, the authors said.

In their Backgrounder issued earlier this week, the authors outlined the alarming rate of growth in the number of people receiving federal government benefits. From 2000 to 2011, that number jumped by 34 million, from 94 million people to 128 million people, or 41.3 percent of the total U.S. population.

As Tyrrell and Beach point out, this is not a total number of those dependent upon government expenditures, but rather, those who receive any form of federal government assistance:

Many of those who receive benefits from the federal government could live well without them, so they do not count as truly dependent on the federal government. Warren Buffett is the beneficiary of a federal program—Social Security—but, since he does not rely on that income for his livelihood, he should not be considered dependent on government programs. Others depend on the programs for nearly all of their income, housing, health care, food, and other needs and so fall under the classification of truly dependent on the government. Still others are somewhere in between, depending on government financing for, say, college, but little else. Consequently, it is important to note that stating that 128.8 million people receive benefits from a government program does not mean that all of them are dependent on the government.

Here are some of their key findings:

• 128,818,142 people are enrolled in at least one government program.
• 48,580,105 people are on Medicaid.
• 35,770,301 people receive their retirement income from Social Security.
• 43,834,566 people are on Medicare.
• 39,030,579 people are living in a household where at least one person accepts food stamps.
• 6,984,783 people are living in subsidized rental housing.
• 2,047,149 people are receiving a higher-education subsidy.

It is important to note that the above categories overlap; for example an individual may receive both subsidized rental housing and food stamps. The total number—128,818,142 people on at least one government program does not double count individuals, however.

The 128,818,142 figure for people enrolled in at least one program is surely an undercount: The CPS responses are well known to undercount those receiving Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, State Children’s Health Insurance, higher-education support, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.


  1. I worked my whole adult life and paid into government programs I believed in.

    I receive modest but sustainable benefits now. They’re called Social Security and Medicare. By the way, my Medicare isn’t free. I pay a monthly premium that’s deducted from my Social Security check for that coverage.

    How dare you.


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