Politics & Policy

Welfare Is at an All-Time High

(The Heritage Foundation)
America’s means-tested welfare spending has reached $1 trillion per year.

Welfare spending has hit a stunning all-time high. A new Congressional Research Service report confirms what research here at the Heritage Foundation has shown: Means-tested welfare programs now cost taxpayers roughly $1 trillion a year.

Unlike general government programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, means-tested welfare programs provide assistance exclusively to poor and low-income individuals. The federal government runs over 80 means-tested programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to around 100 million Americans. That’s a third of the U.S. population. Combined federal and state expenditures on these programs come to roughly $9,000 per recipient per year.

The size and cost of these programs are largely hidden from public view, because government decision-makers and the mainstream media invariably discuss welfare one program at a time. By analyzing each of the 80-plus programs in isolation, they conceal the overall size of the welfare state, because most welfare recipients receive aid from several programs at once. Converted into cash, total welfare spending would equal five times the amount needed to eliminate all poverty in the U.S.

Although liberals constantly lament the level of defense spending, annual spending on means-tested-welfare has exceeded defense spending for nearly two decades — and on President Obama’s watch, means-tested-welfare spending has increased by more than a third. This isn’t a temporary increase because of the recession: Under Obama’s budget plans, welfare spending would continue to grow in the next decade, reaching $1.56 trillion by 2022. Under the same budget plan, during that decade the U.S. would spend well over $2 on welfare for every $1 it spent on national defense.

Over the summer, the administration announced that it would waive work requirements in the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program. This illegal move puts at risk the successes of the 1996 welfare reform — which created TANF and resulted in major declines in the welfare rolls and higher rates of employment among low-income Americans.

Gutting TANF’s work requirements also means that only two of the nation’s 80-plus welfare programs will require able-bodied recipients to work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving aid.

For liberals, a bigger welfare state and greater dependence on government seems to equate with helping the poor. This view is contrary to President Lyndon Johnson’s original aim in launching the War on Poverty. Johnson sought to make the poor self-sufficient, not dependent on government. But after $19 trillion in means-tested-welfare spending, our nation is farther than ever from that original goal.

Putting ever-greater numbers of Americans on welfare is not a mark of success. Although government spending may artificially prop up living standards, it utterly fails in the real task of building self-sufficiency. The growth of welfare is unsustainable, and is no way to promote the authentic well-being of Americans.

Promisingly, we can take steps to bring this spending under control while helping those in need. Once the unemployment rate declines, total welfare spending should be returned to pre-recession levels and then be allowed to grow no faster than the rate of inflation. This would save taxpayers over $2.5 trillion in the next decade.

In addition, rather than weakening work requirements, policymakers should expand this crucial element of welfare to other means-tested programs such as food stamps and public housing, building on the success of the 1996 reforms. Contrary to liberal ideology, promoting self-reliance, rather than government dependence, is the way to help the poor and encourage a thriving society.

— Robert Rector, senior research fellow in domestic policy at the Heritage Foundation, is author of the recent paper Obama’s End Run on Welfare Reform, Part Two: Dismantling Workfare.” Rachel Sheffield, research associate in Heritage’s DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society, is co-author with Rector of the paper Ending Work for Welfare: An Overview.

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