Some people are worried that our country has become a “dependent society.” But, what does that mean? In order to determine whether this fear is justified or not, we first need to define the problem. As I understand it, a dependent society is a society in which many, maybe even half, of the people do not work for a living; instead, they receive assistance from others who do work, or from the government, to obtain their food, clothing, shelter, health care and other necessities.

Are people whose businesses rely primarily on government contracts, or young people (so-called trust fund babies) who don’t work because they can live on their inheritance, part of the dependent society?

Concern about the U.S. becoming a dependent society can be traced to the Protestant work ethic which emphasizes hard work, frugality and prosperity as a display of a person’s salvation in the Christian faith (though not all Christians believe this). Protestants, beginning with the German monk, Martin Luther (1483-1546), have considered worldly work as a duty which benefits both the individual and society as a whole. German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) wrote that the Protestant work ethic was an important force behind the rise of capitalism.

Are older Americans living on Social Security part of the “dependent society”? Since they paid into the Social Security system through payroll taxes during their working years and usually are too old to be hired, they probably should not be considered part of the “dependent society”. What about people age 65 and older who have most of their health care covered by Medicare? Medicare is a federal government program, but Medicare recipients paid into the system (and may continue to have Medicare premiums deducted from their pensions). One can argue that they are not part of the dependent society either.

Approximately 2 million Americans receive government pensions for their long service to our country in the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. Another 9 million former members of the armed services are receiving veterans’ benefits. Should these people be considered part of the dependent society? Hope not.

This leaves the people who receive unemployment benefits, disability benefits, food stamps and Medicaid. There is an saying that, “When your neighbor is unemployed, it’s a recession; when you’re unemployed, it’s a depression.” During the last 20 years, the U.S. economy lost more than a million manufacturing jobs as American companies moved their operations overseas. American workers who lose their jobs and meet the eligibility requirements can receive unemployment benefits. The maximum unemployment benefits a person can receive in South Carolina is $326 per week. Are people receiving unemployment benefits part of the dependent society? You decide.

Social Security pays disability benefits to people who can longer work because they have a serious medical condition. While there are abuses of any program, the people who receive disability benefits usually are incapacitated or so limited in what they can do, that no employer will hire them. However, some of the diseases which cause workers to be disabled are preventable, such as heart disease, lung disease, strokes and diabetes. A universal, single-payer health insurance system emphasizing preventive care would greatly reduce the number of workers who become disabled for health reasons. Universal health insurance also would remove an expensive burden from American businesses and enable them to compete more successfully with foreign businesses.

Some of our fellow citizens still cannot find jobs because of the weak economy, or because they are poorly educated, or because they lack the technical skills required in today’s job market. Many others are underemployed, working at minimum wage jobs – $7.25 per hour, $15,080 per year, which is below the poverty level for a family of two ($15,130 per year).

Improving public education, expanding technical training, and investing in new technologies and infrastructure will enable more people to get good-paying jobs. People who quality for food stamps and Medicaid are the poorest among us. Surely, a rich nation like ours can afford to provide a decent safety net for these people. Whether we realize it or not, we are all interdependent.

Anthony J. DiStefano lives in Aiken.