One Nation On Welfare. Living Your Life On The Dole

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Adam Golfer for TIME

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My life on the dole is hardly unique. The website lists 2,238 federal assistance programs, from the $7.5 million Incentive Grant to Prohibit Racial Profiling to the $4 million Wild Horse and Burro Resource Management. Redundancies jump off the screen. The $24 billion-a-year Agriculture Department is essentially running a bonus government for rural America with its own education, housing, transportation, energy, health, business-promotion and environmental-regulation programs. The $2.5 billion-a-year Bureau of Indian Affairs supports a duplicate government for Native Americans. I suggested to one Administration official that the $662 billion the Pentagon spends on service members, their families and veterans is yet another U.S. government. "No, the Pentagon runs a Swedish government," he corrected me. "It's a socialist paradise!"

Government investments affect our lives in all kinds of subtler ways, from the Pentagon research that led to the development of the Internet I use for work to the one-sided deal that subsidized a $213 million arena for the basketball team I root for obsessively. Americans tell pollsters they don't like government, much less the taxes they pay to fund government, but they tend to support Medicare, the military and most other services that government provides. This is why politicians tend to spend a lot more time talking about shrinking government than actually shrinking government. President Obama talks a lot about trimming the fat, and Republican leaders talk about almost nothing but trimming the fat. But the status quo has largely prevailed.

The explosion of Big Government under Obama is mostly a myth; the public workforce has actually shrunk by half a million workers during his presidency. That said, Obama hasn't been much of a fat trimmer, either. His halfhearted efforts to rein in excessive spending got off to a laughable start in April 2009, when he publicly ordered his Cabinet to find $100 million-with-an-m worth of waste to cut, a rounding error in a $3.6 trillion-with-a-t budget. He later killed a $143 million fighter jet the Pentagon didn't want as well as a $190 million maritime navigation system rendered obsolete by GPS, then agreed to more than $2 trillion in long-range cuts after Republicans threatened to force the Treasury into default in 2011. But those cuts are still mostly theoretical, depending on what happens in the fall election. Meanwhile, the Republican Party has rallied around House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan's long-term blueprint for deep (and specified) deficit-expanding tax cuts paired with deep (but mostly unspecified) cuts in nondefense spending. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney embraced the Ryan plan during the primaries and then put Ryan on his ticket, but he has been even cagier about what he intends to cut beyond small-dollar Republican targets like Amtrak and NPR.

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