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Disabling America

| Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012, 8:53 p.m.

WASHINGTON

The election eve mood is tinged with sadness stemming from well-founded fear that America's new government is subverting America's old character. Barack Obama's agenda is a menu of temptations intended to change the nation's social norms by making Americans comfortable with the degradation of democracy. This degradation consists of piling up public debt that binds unconsenting future generations to finance current consumption.

So argues Nicholas Eberstadt, an economist and demographer at the American Enterprise Institute, in “A Nation of Takers: America's Entitlement Epidemic.”

Beginning two decades after the death of Franklin Roosevelt, who would find today's government unrecognizable, government became a geyser of entitlements. In 2010, government at all levels transferred more than $2.2 trillion in money, goods and services to recipients — $7,200 per individual, almost $29,000 per family of four.

Before 1960, only in the Depression years of 1931 and 1935 did federal transfer payments exceed other federal expenditures. During most of FDR's 12 presidential years, income transfers were a third or less of federal spending.

But between 1960 and 2010, entitlements exploded from 28 percent to 66 percent of federal spending. By 2010, more than 34 percent of households were receiving means-tested benefits. Republicans were more than merely complicit, says Eberstadt.

And entitlement spending growth over the past half-century has been distinctly greater under Republican administrations than Democrat ones, he says.

Why, then, should we expect Mitt Romney to reverse Republican complicity? Because by embracing Paul Ryan, Romney embraced Ryan's emphasis on the entitlement state's moral as well as financial costs.

As evidence of the moral costs, Eberstadt cites the fact that means-tested entitlement recipience has not merely been destigmatized, it has been celebrated as a basic civil right. Hence the stunning growth of supposed disabilities.

Since 1948, male labor force participation has plummeted from 89 percent to 73 percent. Today, 27 percent of adult men do not consider themselves part of the workforce: “A large part of the jobs problem for American men today is not wanting one.” Which is why “labor force participation ratios for men in the prime of life are lower in America than in Europe.”

One reason work now is neither a duty nor a necessity is the gaming — defrauding, really — of disability entitlements. In 1960, an average of 455,000 workers were receiving disability payments; in 2011, 8.6 million were — more than four times the number of persons receiving basic welfare benefits under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Nearly half of the 8.6 million were “disabled” because of “mood disorders” or ailments of the “musculoskeletal system and the connective tissue.” It is, says Eberstadt, essentially impossible to disprove a person's claim to be suffering from sad feelings or back pain.

Eberstadt says collecting disability is an increasingly important American “profession”: For every 100 industrial workers in December 2010, there were 73 “workers” receiving disability payments. Between January 2010 and December 2011, the U.S. economy created 1.73 million nonfarm jobs — but almost half as many (790,000) workers became disability recipients.

And this trend is not a Great Recession phenomenon: In the 15 years ending in December 2011, America added 8.8 million nonfarm private-sector jobs — and 4.1 million workers on disability rolls.

America's ethos once was what Eberstadt calls “optimistic Puritanism,” combining an affinity for personal enterprise with a horror of dependency. Nov. 6 is a late and perhaps last chance to begin stopping the scandal of plundering our descendants' wealth to finance the demands of today's entitlement mentality.

George F. Will is a columnist for The Washington Post and Newsweek.

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