Almost Everyone Depends On Government

Suzanne Mettler and John Sides find that nearly every American is "both a maker and a taker":

[N]early all Americans — 96 percent — have relied on the federal government to assist them. Young adults, who are not yet eligible for many policies, account for most of the remaining 4 percent.

On average, people reported that they had used five social policies at some point in their lives. An individual typically had received two direct social benefits in the form of checks, goods or services paid for by government, like Social Security or unemployment insurance. Most had also benefited from three policies in which government’s role was "submerged," meaning that it was channeled through the tax code or private organizations, like the home mortgage-interest deduction and the tax-free status of the employer contribution to employees’ health insurance. The design of these policies camouflages the fact that they are social benefits, too, just like the direct benefits that help Americans pay for housing, health care, retirement and college.

Brad Plumer follows up:

The contentious bit here is how one views tax expenditures. There are two ways to look at the vast buffet of credits and deductions that Congress offers through the tax code. One is that these are essentially tax cuts. People making mortgage interest payments get to keep a bigger chunk of their paychecks than they otherwise would. A firm that offers its employees health insurance pays less in taxes than it would if it spent that money on extra wages.

The other way to look at these credits and deductions is that they’re essentially government spending programs in disguise. After all, if these deductions didn’t exist, then either the deficit would be smaller or everyone else could pay fewer taxes.