Republican presidential candidates, from left, former Sen. Rick Santorum, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) are seen during a debate held at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Fla. Commentator Robert Reich says these presidential hopefuls are missing the point when it comes to what ails the U.S. - 

Kai Ryssdal: At the very least, Rick Santorum's strong showing last night in the various GOP primaries and caucuses livens that race up a bit.

Commentator Robert Reich says the remaining candidates generally agree on what ails the country. They just miss the cause.

Robert Reich: One of the few things the Republican presidential candidates agree on is that President Obama is turning America into what they call a "European-style welfare culture."

In his standard stump speech, Mitt Romney charges Obama with replacing our merit-based society with an "entitlement society." Yesterday's big winner Rick Santorum says, "There's a push to get more and more people dependent." Newt Gingrich calls Obama the best food-stamp president in American history.

Government data do show direct payments to individuals shot up by almost 32 percent since the start of 2009, and almost half of Americans now live in homes where at least one person is collecting a federal benefit -- such as Social Security, food stamps, or unemployment insurance.

The GOP candidates argue our economic problems stem from this sharp rise in what they see as dependency on government. But they have cause and effect backwards. The reason for the rise in these federal benefits is Americans got clobbered in 2008 with the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. Many are still in it. They and their families have needed whatever helping hands are available.

That's why the percentage of Americans falling into poverty has grown dramatically over the past three years.

January's increase in hiring is good news, but it masks the continuing downward mobility of much of the middle class.

Most of the new jobs being created are in the lower-wage sectors of the economy -- hospital orderlies, nursing aides, secretaries and retail clerks, hotel and restaurant workers. Millions of other Americans remain working in their old jobs only because they've agreed to cuts in wages and benefits. And millions of others have become temps or contract workers.

If anything, America's safety nets have been too small and shot through with holes. Only 40 percent of the unemployed qualify for unemployment benefits.

We haven't entered an entitlement society. Too many Americans have entered a downwardly-mobile society.

Ryssdal: Robert Reich teaches public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book is called, "Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future." Let us know what you think -- write to us.