Michael Tanner

New Jersey governor Chris Christie recently warned that America is in danger of becoming a country of “people sitting on the couch waiting for their next government check.” Predictably, the Left was outraged, but Governor Christie wasn’t far off the mark.

During the 2011 debate over raising the debt ceiling, President Obama reminded Americans that the federal government sends out 70 million checks every month. That is probably an underestimate. According to the Washington Post, the president’s number included Social Security, veterans’ benefits, and spending on non-defense contractors and vendors, but not reimbursements to Medicare providers and vendors or electronic transfers to the 21 million households receiving food stamps. (Nor did he include most spending by the Defense Department, which has a payroll of 6.4 million active and retired employees and, on average, cuts checks for nearly 1 million invoices and 660,000 travel-expense claims per month.) The actual number might be closer to 200 million checks every month.

Of course it would be unfair to lump everyone who receives a check from the government in with the people Governor Christie was talking about (though it does say something about the size of government) but, nonetheless, we are becoming a society that relies on government to care for us.

In 1965, just 22 percent of all federal spending was transfer payments. Today it has doubled to 44 percent. That means that nearly half of all federal spending is simply government taking money from one person and giving it to another.

Or look at it another way: In 1965, transfer payments from the federal government made up less than 10 percent of wages and salaries. As recently as 2000, that percentage was just 21 percent. Today, transfer payments are more than a third of salary and wages. Worse, if one includes salaries from government employment, more than half of Americans receive a substantial portion of their income from the government.


Michael Tanner

Michael D. Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, heading research into a variety of domestic policies with particular emphasis on health care reform, welfare policy, and Social Security. His most recent white paper, "Bad Medicine: A Guide to the Real Costs and Consequences of the New Health Care Law," provides a detailed examination of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and what it means to taxpayers, workers, physicians, and patients.