Obama’s Welfare State: More Beneficiaries Now Above Poverty Line than Below

by Eliana Johnson

Despite the curveballs – Benghazi, a hurricane – this election will pivot on the economy, the debt, and the deficit. Looming in the background is the issue of entitlement spending, which must be reformed if entitlements are to continue to exist at all. 

In the Fall 2012 issue of National Affairs, George Mason University Professor David Armor and post-doctoral fellow Sonia Sousa present astonishing but little-known data on the expansion of the welfare state under President Obama. A glance at the data as they present it goes a long way in explaining our entitlement problem and how we might go about fixing it. Armor and Sousa trace the growth of entitlements to the expansion of eligibility for them: More Americans above the poverty line than below it are now receiving the benefits of our largest and most expensive welfare programs. 

Take the case of food stamps. Newt Gingrich dubbed Obama the “food stamp president,” and he may be deserving of the title. Participation in the largest food-stamp program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) doubled from 20 million in the 1980s to 40 million in 2010, but not because there were more poor Americans. Between 2008 and 2010 alone, the percentage of non-poor Americans receiving food stamps increased by 10 percent and a whopping 51 percent of food-stamp recipients are now above the poverty line.  

The same is true for the major health-care programs, Medicaid, where benefits per recipient increased to $4,700 in 2010 from $3,800 in 2005, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). The chart below shows that most beneficiaries are over the poverty line, including 79 percent of those over the age of 65 — you know, all the people Paul Ryan wants to wheel over the cliff. 

Armor and Sousa parse the data in far more detail than I’ve done here. They go on to analyze similar data for the recipients of federal income assistance and housing assistance, with much the same outcome. Their piece is also prescriptive, but concludes, in part:  

The key to controlling our swiftly growing welfare programs is to think in terms of the purpose and not just the size of government. The idea that anti-poverty programs should help those who are poor is so obvious as to be a tautology. And yet — as the data above illustrate clearly — this is not at all how our federal anti-poverty programs work today. 

Read the whole thing

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