The leak of a video featuring former Governor Mitt Romney (R-MA) has sparked debate about government dependency and the number of people in the United States who do not pay federal income tax.

In the video, Romney refers to “47 percent” of Americans and says that they are “dependent upon government” and “pay no income tax.” While these groups are not necessarily one in the same, there is overlap between the two, and the percentages on government dependency and non-tax-paying are very similar.

It is true that nearly half of all tax filers—those who are filing an income form with the IRS—pay no federal income tax. It’s also true that millions of Americans receive direct government support in a host of ways, including income, food, housing, medical care, school lunches, and more.

In 2009, 47 percent of all tax filers paid no federal individual income taxes, and in 2011 that figure was 46 percent. This raises a crucial question, as Heritage’s Alison Fraser points out: “Should nearly 50 percent of Americans really be exempt from funding the most basic constitutional functions of government—along with education, food stamps, energy, welfare, foreign aid, veterans’ benefits, housing, and so forth?”

It stands to reason that those who have skin in the game—who are helping to pay for all of the government programs—will be more concerned about reining in out-of-control government spending, because they see their taxes going up and the country’s credit rating going down.

On the other hand, if you are on the receiving end of government benefits, that is likely to color your perception of how taxpayers’ money should be spent. According to the Heritage Foundation’s 2012 Index of Dependence on Government, 63.7 million Americans, or about one in five, is receiving direct government support from Social Security, welfare, or Pell Grants—and that is at its highest level ever. (continues below chart)

These individuals are very likely to be receiving additional benefits from other government programs such as Medicare or Medicaid, food stamps, etc., and the total share of Americans receiving benefits is likely to be even higher when considering benefits available on everything from housing to school lunches. The Wall Street Journal found that in 2011, 49 percent of Americans lived in a household where at least one member of the family received a government benefit.

Heritage has been publishing the Index of Dependence on Government for the past 10 years, and the Center for Data Analysis offered a preview yesterday of what next year’s report will look like, as it updates with the most recent data becoming available for 2011.

The outlook is grim: Government dependency is jumping for the fourth year in a row, and the Index has risen more than 31 percent in that time.

This is bad news for three reasons. First, the economy is so weak that people are going to the government for help. This is a stark repudiation of President Obama’s big-spending, “spread the wealth around” approach, because “giving everyone a shot” does not work unless the “shot” comes at the expense of the taxpayers.

Second, the nation can’t afford to continue increasing spending on these programs, as President Obama has proposed in each of his budgets. Federal spending is exploding—and it is already an eye-popping reality that 70.5 percent of federal spending goes to dependency-creating programs. We are spending more on dependency-creating programs while an ever-shrinking number of taxpayers are paying for them.

But third, and most importantly, it’s bad for Americans. The American Dream is about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, through independence—not dependence on government. Government dependency erodes human dignity and civil society.

These programs were originally designed to help those who fall on hard times and need a safety net. Public policy should head back in that direction. The welfare reform of 1996 helped lift recipients out of poverty and back into jobs by requiring, among other things, that they work. President Obama has undone that requirement. And there are dozens more anti-poverty programs that should be revamped to help those who are able toward self-sufficiency.

At the same time, we must address the looming entitlements crisis: 78 million baby boomers are heading into retirement, and many of them will be entirely dependent on Social Security and Medicare for their income and health care. This dependency is a huge driver of future budget deficits.

We cannot continue on a course of unlimited government spending when fewer and fewer taxpayers are paying for that spending. That is the financial fact. But we also cannot sustain the American Dream on this course—and that is a fact that is intensely personal for every American.

Quick Hits:

  • According to a new report, after the Obama Administration suspended the work requirement that had been tied to food stamps, the number of able-bodied people on food stamps doubled.
  • President Obama told late-night host David Letterman that we don’t have to worry about the debt and deficit “short term,” though they are “long-term” and “medium-term” problems.
  • France is closing 20 of its embassies around the world after a French magazine published cartoons of the prophet Mohammed.
  • Chicago students will return to school today after the teachers union finally ended its strike last night. Reuters reports that the union “fought off [Mayor Rahm] Emanuel’s attempt to link pay to merit.”
  • A new Heritage study reveals that government employees work roughly one month less per year than private-sector workers.