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 who are just plain sociopaths, (like Wimpy, the cartoon character 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.
Does a working mother who accepts free health care 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.
Each of us is supposed to earn everything that we get, but in some areas, especially health care, that becomes nearly impossible. Though Missouri voters passed a constitutional amendment with a clear majority in 2020, the 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.
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 who 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.
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?
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 in our lifetime, some of us get sick and most of us need care and maintenance to prevent problems down the line.
• Employer-based health insurance is a tax-favored system that freeloads off of other people who don’t get employer-subsidized health care. Look at the W-2 for code DD, and for most people there is, no doubt, a number in the thousands of dollars for money that their company paid on their behalf that the person never had to pay a dime in taxes for. This subsidy, which keeps the employer-based system afloat, cost the US Treasury some $300 billion (nearly 10% of what it takes in) this year alone. When an employer pays for an employee’s health insurance, that is a form of compensation, and the fact that the employee isn’t taxed on it makes the employee a freeloader, pure and simple. You and me.
• Finally, the pandemic has exposed just how prevalent free riders are when it comes to illness and personal responsibility. If a person makes bad lifestyle choices that cause the person to consume more than her or his 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 — that person is freeloading off of the rest of us who make more responsible choices, and 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 OK.
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. Before you go and point the finger at suspected freeloaders, remember that the other four fingers are pointed right back at you.
Dan Connors is a certified public accountant and freelance writer in St. Louis County. His blog is authordanconnors.com.