THE FISCAL CLIFF: 150 million reasons why it's so hard to cut federal spending

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 13, 2012 

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As President Barack Obama and Congress debate ways to avert a pending fiscal crisis, the country broadly agrees that they need to cut federal budget deficits.

There's solid support for raising taxes on the wealthy, but those tax increases alone wouldn't solve the problem.

And cutting spending is extremely difficult. Look in the mirror for the key to that problem: Nearly 150 million Americans -- 49 percent -- receive some government benefit. That includes Social Security, veterans' benefits, Medicare or Medicaid and food stamps, according to Census Bureau figures from last year, the most recent available.

Among them:

  • 80 million get help from Medicaid, the health insurance for the poor.

  • 49 million get Social Security.

  • 48 million get food stamps.

  • 45 million get Medicare.

  • In Beaufort County, entitlement spending accounted for 19 percent of all personal income in 2011, according to data from the Department of Commerce's Bureau of Economic Analysis.

    In Jasper County, government benefits accounted for about 25 percent of all personal income last year.

    Nearly three-quarters of those payments in Beaufort County were Social Security and Medicare.

    In Jasper County, those benefits accounted for about half of entitlement spending. Medicaid and food stamps accounted for another 23 percent, according to the data.

    In total, more than 38 percent of households in Beaufort County and 32 percent of households in Jasper County had someone on Social Security between 2007 and 2011, according the U.S. Census Bureau.

    With so many depending on government assistance for almost one-fourth of their income, entitlement changes could have a calamitous effect on quality of life and could push the burden for assistance to charities already facing federal and state spending cuts, said Lowcountry nonprofit leaders.

    About 40 Beaufort County charities spent more than $445,000 since the beginning of the year, providing food and help with rent, mortgage, utilities and other payments to 5,610 households and 13,834 individuals. That's according to numbers from Community Services Organization, composed of nonprofit and service agencies that assist the poor, elderly and homeless in Beaufort County.

    The biggest hurdle for many residents, said Steve Curless, president of Community Services Organization, are medical expenses.

    "That's what is keeping a lot of our clients in poverty," Curless said. "Cuts to Medicare and Medicaid will have tremendous impact on the poverty level in Beaufort County."

    Charities have already seen drastic increases in the number of people seeking assistance for the last five years.

    "A lot of our clients are living on a slim Social Security check," says Betsy Doughtie, director of The Deep Well Project on Hilton Head Island. "If that income is cut, they're going to have a lot harder time paying bills. That will drive up need for assistance."

    Beyond that, there are price supports for farmers. Money for schools. Road, bridge and highway construction programs that employ thousands. Popular public broadcasting shows.

    "It's really quite simple: People who get the spending like to keep getting it," veteran Washington budget analyst Stan Collender said. "Almost any spending that's still in the budget has substantial political support."

    Numerous polls show widespread enthusiasm for cutting spending in general, but there's resistance to specific trims, Collender said.

    "With the possible exception of foreign aid, and every once in a while NASA, almost nothing has a majority of support for cutting," Collender said. "If you read the public opinion polls, Americans don't want their government to do less, they just want it to cost less."

    A recent McClatchy-Marist Poll found overwhelming opposition to every option mentioned to cut spending. Fully 85 percent of voters oppose any reductions in Medicare, for example. Fifty-nine percent oppose raising the eligibility age for Medicare. The opposition cuts across party lines, with a majority of Republicans joining Democrats in opposing cuts to Medicare or Medicaid.

    The personal stake in the federal budget has grown by leaps and bounds since the creation of Medicare in the 1960s and the expansion of it to cover prescription drugs in the last decade.

    Federal spending sent to individuals for entitlements such as food stamps, Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security has more than doubled as a share of the federal budget, from 25 percent in 1960 to more than 60 percent today.

    Erskine Bowles, who co-chaired a bipartisan budget commission, said the broad vested interest made it difficult to cut spending.

    "Everybody is like my Mama," who wants the problem fixed without touching Medicare, Bowles said. Politicians say they want to trim spending, "except the thing that's important to them," he said. "This doesn't get easier; it gets harder when you let every interest group say, 'Don't touch my thing.' "

    Beaufort Gazette and Island Packet staff writer Tom Barton contributed.

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