‘Dependency culture’ keeps growing

Published 6:25 am Saturday, June 30, 2012

Speaking to group of high school students at a leadership conference, Dr. Judson Edwards asked a simple question: “Do you believe government can create jobs or make a better life for you?”

“Hands went up all over the room,” said Edwards, dean of the Sorrell College of Business at Troy University. “And that’s my concern … we have a whole generation of kids who are looking to government to solve their problems, rather than looking to themselves.”

Edwards came of age during the 1980s and the era of Reaganomics, and like many in his generation, his economics and politics are driven by the concepts of self-sufficiency and free enterprise.

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So when the U.S. Supreme Court this week upheld the fundamental portions of the Affordable Care Act – the sweeping health care mandate that some say will result in the single largest tax increase in our nation’s history – Edwards shared the growing sense of frustration rumbling throughout America. “I’m concerned we just continue to build a dependency culture,” he said. “Seriously … has there ever been any government program that has the ability to reduce costs and improve services?”

That question resonates with Dr. Scott Beaulier, executive director of the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University. A proponent of free-market economics, he talks often about the ongoing shift in America. “We’re a nation that accepted Medicaid and Medicare programs 50 years ago, and this is just an extenuation of ‘entitlement America.’ We’re looking more and more like a European country. And while Europe’s a nice place, it’s not an innovative place.”

Like Edwards, Beaulier sees troubling signs in the Supreme Court’s ruling and the implementation of the Affordable Healthcare Act. “Some folks say this is a big shift (in American history), but really it’s been a steady shift in this direction for a long time,” Beaulier said. “It’s just a continuation of more and more government intervention into every aspect of our lives.”

Consider the additional regulations placed on banks and lending institutions, or what many call significant invasions of privacy in the wake of 9/11. “Or the Federal Reserve on the monetary side,” Beaulier said. “What they’re doing is even bigger.”

Now, the federal government is levying a tax – the Supreme Court even said so in its ruling – on individuals who choose not follow the mandate and carry health insurance. Medicaid is expanding exponentially, raising the cap on qualifying households to 133 percent of the federal poverty line, increasing the number of people in the program from 1 million to 1.5 million. “Somebody has to foot the bill for that,” Beaulier said.

That somebody is everybody who is employed or owns a business, and everyone who pays federal Medicaid taxes. And those are just the surface implications. As Beaulier points out, the true costs to states and taxpayers won’t be felt for a couple of years.

“Right now, states have a choice: stick with the current level of (Medicaid) coverage or move ahead with the Affordable Care Act levels,” he said. “If states choose to stay at the current level, they’ll keep the same level of federal funding.”

While some states – such as Texas  – already have opted to remain at current levels of funding, Gov. Robert Bentley hasn’t said what Alabama will do.

“The way it’s structured, the states will have a lot of incentives (to change the Medicaid levels),” Beaulier said. “The federal government will front all the money (for Medicaid programs) for a couple of years.” Lawmakers likely will see that as “free money,” with an opportunity to expand Medicaid coverage at no additional expense to the state. “But the problem will come in a couple of years, when the federal government reduces its level of funding and the states have to pay the cost of the programs.”

Then, state lawmakers will face a difficult decision: increase taxes or cut services elsewhere to cover Medicaid costs. Neither is a popular solution.

The debate over Obamacare highlights the generational divide that Edwards saw when talking with those high school students. And, it exacerbates the economic divide in America today.

“A lot of Americans are really disappointed in this decision,” Beaulier said. “Deep down our instincts tell us this is the wrong direction for America to be headed.” Yet, “a lot of young people are viewing this as a free lunch. For young adults who don’t have jobs, who don’t have insurance … they see this as saving them.”

Not so many years ago, as a recent graduate, Beaulier was one of those young adults without comprehensive health care coverage offered by an employer. His solution? “I went out and purchased catastrophic coverage so that if I was driving between Troy and Montgomery and wrapped my car around a tree … Well, at least I’d have some sort of health care coverage.”

No one would argue the fundamental concept of providing health care to all in need. It’s a noble ideal and, viewed solely through the lens of social justice, the right thing for us to do. But realizing that ideal without eroding the core concepts on which our nation was founded or crippling our economy? That’s a tougher answer.

Maybe, the answer lies with those students in Edwards’ leadership seminar, in instilling in them a vision of something other than “entitlement America.”

Stacy G. Graning is publisher of The Messenger. Contact her at stacy.graning@troymessenger.com.