1. Florida Politics

Conservatives' love-hate relationship with entitlement programs

Published Feb. 25, 2012

If you haven't read it, I highly recommend a recent, exhaustively researched New York Times story — online at — showing that areas of the country most likely to vote for small-government, Republican candidates increasingly rely on federal entitlement programs.

I found it so interesting, I decided to see how a few of Hernando County's conservative strongholds stacked up.

In the precincts that include the Wellington gated community, in south-central Hernando County, registered Republicans outnumber Democrats 732 to 570. In the Glen Lakes precinct, north of Weeki Wachee, those figures are 1,485 and 813, respectively. And Timber Pines, off U.S. 19 in Spring Hill, is home to more than twice as many Republicans, 2,481, as Democrats, 1,139.

Combined, these precincts account for more than half the lead in registered voters enjoyed by Republicans in Hernando. We can't generalize about the folks in these communities, of course, not even members of the same party. But I think it is safe to say that without them, staunchly anti-tax politicians at all levels of government would have considerably less support.

All three communities cater to 55-and-older folks, either exclusively (Timber Pines and the Wellington) or primarily (Glen Lakes). So, not surprisingly, Social Security retirement benefits are a big source of income across the board.

The Wellington and Glen Lakes are part of larger census tracts, and the available data about them includes surrounding neighborhoods, presumably with lower concentrations of retirees. Still, in the Wellington's tract, 65 percent of households receive Social Security retirement benefits — an average of $19,607 per year, according to surveys conducted by the Census Bureau between 2006 and 2010.

Both those figures are slightly lower in the tract that includes Glen Lakes, as well as the nearby Heather.

And in Timber Pines — a "census designated place" in its own right — 91 percent of households collected an average of $20,394 a year from Social Security.

Okay, you might argue (and no doubt will argue if you are a conservative who lives in one of these communities), Social Security is funded by a payroll tax. Retirees not only deserve these benefits, they paid for them.

True enough, especially for the kind of folks who tend to end up in well-appointed gated subdivisions. Social Security beneficiaries who earned above-average salaries are likely to end up putting at least as much into the system as they take out, according to information compiled by Eugene Steuerle, a fellow at the nonpartisan Urban Institute.

Still, it's the most expensive of all government safety nets, one established during the administration of this country's most liberal president, Franklin Roosevelt — a Democrat through and through.

The second-largest entitlement program, Medicare — which was also created to benefit retirees — doesn't come close to paying for itself. Even above-average earners contribute less than half of the $351,000 worth of lifetime benefits the average retiree receives, according to the Urban Institute, and that makes it one of the largest sources of the federal budget deficit that so many Republican candidates love to hate.

Take these programs away, and it's clear that the secure, recreation-filled, gated-community lifestyle I documented in a column last week about Timber Pines wouldn't be possible. Or at least not for nearly as many people.

I've got nothing against happy retirements, by the way. I hope to have one myself in a few years. And, though along with just about everybody else I worry about the expense and generosity of Medicare and Social Security, I have no problem with the principle behind them. There's no doubt that the tax-paying public has a responsibility to take care of elderly residents.

I just wish some of them could be a little more grateful.