From a political perspective, perhaps the most shocking claim made by Mitt Romney in his comments at a Boca Raton fundraiser was the suggestion that the vast majority of Obama supporters are freeloaders who leech off the productive members of society.
"There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what," Romney says in the video, which was surreptitiously recorded and posted Monday by the liberal magazine Mother Jones. "All right—there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent on government, who believe that, that they are victims, who believe that government has the responsibility to care for them. Who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing."
The notion that a rapidly growing number of Americans is becoming overly dependent on entitlements is widespread among modern conservatives. As a factual matter, it's very much up for debate. But let's leave that aside for now.
What's more interesting is that Romney badly mischaracterized just who those Americans are. In reality, his notion that Obama supporters depend on government, while his own backers are self-sufficient strivers is contradicted by the evidence, as even conservatives acknowledge.
"As a practical matter, the largest of bulk of payments are to people through Social Security and Medicare," Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and the author of the forthcoming book A Nation of Takers, told Lean Forward. In other words, they're made on the basis of age, rather than income or poverty.
In the book, Eberstadt charts what he calls "the unstoppable rise of entitlements" in America since 1960. And according to his numbers, which rely on Census Bureau figures, the old are receiving almost as twice as much in government transfer payments each year as the poor. In an essay adapted from the book and posted online by the book's publisher, he writes:
Poverty- or income-related entitlements—transfers of money, goods, or services, including health-care services—accounted for over $650 billion in government outlays in 2010 ....For their part, entitlements for older Americans—Medicare, Social Security, and other pension payments—worked out to even more by 2010, about $1.2 trillion.
To be sure, Eberstadt notes that poverty- or income-related transfers have grown slightly faster since 1960 than have entitlements for older Americans: by a rate of 7 percent versus 5 percent. Still, in real terms, older Americans benefit far more from entitlement programs—thanks to Social Security and Medicare—than poor Americans.
Of course, that gives the lie to the central thrust of Romney's remarks. After all, in 2008, voters age 60 and over were the only age cohort to support John McCain over Barack Obama. This year, polls show Romney far ahead with voters who are 65 and older, but trailing with every other age group.
To Eberstadt and others concerned about what they see as the long-term unsustainability of entitlements, it's not an issue of low-income beneficiaries versus older beneficiaries. "The reason the burden is so crushing is because entitlements are mainstream," he said. "They’re for working Americans, they’re for middle-class Americans. For everybody."
At a press conference Monday night, Romney stood by the substance of his remarks, but allowed that they were "not elegantly stated."