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  • Dan Connors

We are all freeloaders

Updated: May 25, 2021

Americans these days are very concerned about freeloaders. Freeloaders, also known as "free riders" in economic parlance, enjoy the benefits of something without contributing to it. If fairness is the goal, then the thought that somebody, somewhere, is getting away with laziness and irresponsibility rubs many of us the wrong way. We work hard and deserve what we have, but some people are parasites and undeserving of the same things. The debate over freeloading today divides us into two grossly oversimplified camps- makers and takers. But aside from the obvious candidates that are just plain sociopaths, (like Wimpy above who is always borrowing hamburger money but never paying it back), determining exactly who is a freeloader and who isn't is much more complicated than we all think.

The term "freeloader" is thought to have originated during the depression but the origins are not quite known. It may refer to hoboes who boarded freight trains without paying, or to trucking shipments where people got deliveries for free. Lately the term seems to refer to a wide variety of segments of society not seen as contributing anything of value, while consuming valuable resources. As we will see, the term is largely subjective. Does a rich child of a celebrity that inherits a fortune contribute anything, or are they basically a freeloader? Does a working mother who accepts free healthcare and food stamps qualify as a freeloader because she relies on government bailouts? And if we're going to look at accepting government money as a red flag, then what about stimulus checks, farm subsidies, and bank bailouts? Finding that one person who has never, ever, relied on others in any way, is an impossible task. We all have debts in this life that we can never repay.

You are supposed to earn everything that you get, but in some areas, especially healthcare, that becomes nearly impossible. Here in Missouri, there is a debate about expanded Medicaid funding, which has helped poor people get covered in a majority of states in the US. Though the voters passed a constitutional amendment with a clear majority in 2020, the Missouri legislature has refused to go along. Medicaid recipients are freeloaders, and a drain on the rest of us, so the argument goes. They need to get a job. Only the most severely disabled should qualify for Medicaid, and anybody that is able-bodied has no right to health insurance, (even if it's unaffordable).

If the working poor are freeloaders, then so are the rest of us. They clean our toilets, watch our kids, change the diapers of the elderly, and struggle to make ends meet in ways most of us cannot imagine. Conservative legislators imagine welfare queens that don't exist except in racist memes, while the truth is that the working poor are decent people who end up in the emergency room long past the time when early intervention could have prevented expensive pain and suffering.

The theory behind cracking down on the freeloaders is that when they see that help isn't coming, they will pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get better jobs with better benefits. (Only these better jobs don't exist for the most part thanks to globalization and the gig economy). Too much help makes them dependent on others and addicted to free stuff. But that's only if you subscribe to the darkest view of human nature. Most people, I have found, want to pull their weight and contribute, but can't figure out how to. How much help is too much? Do we help people after natural disasters? During pandemics? When they are struggling with medical or mental health issues? Too much help, thrown randomly certainly is wasteful, but targeted help that gets people back on their feet is what we should aspire towards.

Free riders can be found everywhere in the health care system, and cracking down on the most vulnerable doesn't come close to fixing the problem. For instance:

- Missouri legislators get access to subsidized group health insurance that other Missourians can't use, and all for what is essentially a part-time job. Most part-time workers don't qualify for any benefits in private industry.

- The entire structure of the health insurance industry depends on free ridership. The sick consume more resources at the expense of the healthy, who consume few. That's the whole point of insurance, because at one time or another our lifetimes, some of us get sick and most of us need care and maintenance to prevent problems down the line. Spreading around the risk is just another word for the freeloading that we all take part in.

-Many employers enjoy generous subsidies for their employees from the government in the form of subsidized health insurance plans from the Affordable Care Act, food stamps, subsidized housing, and education assistance. Because they don't have to pay their employees a living wage, they get to pocket the difference and ride free off of the government.

- Employer-based health insurance is a tax-favored system that freeloads off of other people who don't get employer subsidized healthcare. Look at your w-2 for code DD, and you will no doubt see a number in the thousands of dollars for money that your company paid on your behalf that you never had to pay a dime in taxes for. This subsidy, that keeps the employer-based system afloat, cost the US Treasury some $300 Billion dollars (nearly 10% of what it takes in) this year alone. If your employer pays for your health insurance, that is a form of compensation, and the fact that you aren't taxed on it makes you a freeloader, pure and simple.

- Finally, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed just how prevalent free riders are when it comes to illness and personal responsibility. If you make bad lifestyle choices that cause you to consume more than your share of medical resources- (not wearing a mask in a pandemic, refusing vaccines, smoking, not exercising, eating unhealthy foods, abusing drugs, or exposing yourself to dangerous chemicals)- you are freeloading off the rest of us who make more responsible choices- driving up insurance premiums for everybody.

In a way, we are all freeloaders. No matter how pure, righteous and self-sufficient we think we are, somebody out there is going to help or support us in our times of need, and that's okay. More importantly, whether we like it or not, we are all intricately linked with each other- economically, politically, and environmentally. Some try valiantly to divide Americans into virtuous makers and selfish takers, but the complicated truth is that most of us are a little bit of both. Sure there are exceptions like Wimpy who do nothing but take, but they are a small minority and need to be dealt with firmly and compassionately.

We need to stop looking for scapegoats that aren't there and look for the best in our fellow humans. Our health care system is an expensive, dysfunctional embarrassment, and it's not because of poor, lazy people mooching off the system. It's because we are too damned polarized to see clearly and come up with workable solutions anymore. Before you go and point the finger at suspected freeloaders, remember that the other four fingers are pointed right back at you.

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