The sequester is forcing devastating cuts on the nation’s welfare system at a time of record poverty levels — or so shouts a recent Associated Press dispatch, magnified with glee by overseas media.
But let’s put this in perspective.
First, the much-maligned sequester cuts less than 3 percent of non-defense spending. Spending on the nation’s means-tested welfare system — which provides cash, food, medical care, housing and social services to the poor — has grown one-third under President Obama. However, Washington hasn’t just been ratcheting up welfare spending for the past few years.
Welfare spending has been on an upward climb ever since LBJ’s Great Society kicked off in 1964. Welfare spending has increased 16-fold (adjusted for inflation) and today amounts to nearly $1 trillion annually. About $717 billion was federal spending in fiscal 2011; the other $210 billion was state spending. The federal government also funds 80 different welfare programs.
Second, while high poverty rates are never good news, the government’s definition of poverty is different than how most Americans would view it. Generally, the idea of poverty conjures images of significant want: lack of food, shelter, clothing and other basic necessities.
Those living below the poverty line are in no way living in the lap of luxury. But according to the government’s own data, the average poor family has enough to eat, comfortable and adequate housing, a car and many other amenities found in the typical American household.
The sequester certainly isn’t the way to go about reforming the nation’s welfare system, but it is imperative that Congress get runaway welfare spending under control.
Welfare should also be reformed to promote self-sufficiency, something that government programs for the most part fail to do. The 1996 reform made significant strides by inserting work requirements into one of the dozens of welfare programs, but that change first was undermined and then gutted by the Obama administration.
So how can Congress get spending under control while reforming welfare to better help those in need?
Once the job market recovers and unemployment falls to 6.5 percent, total welfare spending should be rolled back to pre-recession levels and then capped — with increases tied to inflation going forward. And the work requirements should be restored, strengthened and expanded to other welfare programs.
Food stamps alone — one of the largest and fastest-growing welfare programs — provides monthly benefits to roughly 3.5 million able-bodied adults without dependents. Annual cost: about $7 billion. A work requirement would put these Americans on a path to self-reliance while making the government more fiscally responsible to taxpayers.
Welfare is long overdue for more sound, practical reform. Restoring fiscal responsibility and personal responsibility isn’t just possible, it’s necessary.
Rachel Sheffield, research associate in the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation, is co-author with Robert Rector of the paper “Understanding Poverty in the United States.”