The Corner

Want to Help the Poor? Transform, Don’t Grow, Welfare

For a half century, Washington has endlessly enlarged the welfare state, piling one program on top of another, adding layer after layer of spending. In his State of the Union address last evening, President Obama proposed yet another round of welfare spending. 

Since the beginning of the War on Poverty 50 years ago, the U.S. has spent over $20 trillion on anti-poverty programs. Today the federal government runs over 80 means-tested aid programs providing cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to the poor and near poor.

Total federal and state spending on these programs now exceeds $900 billion per year (excluding Social Security and Medicare). Over 100 million persons — or one in three Americans — receive aid from at least one means-tested welfare program each month. President Obama, a passionate advocate for expanding the welfare state, already planned to spend over $12.7 trillion on means-tested welfare over the next decade alone.

But apparently $12.7 trillion isn’t enough. In last night’s speech, Obama said he

would increase the refundable earned-income tax credit for adults who do not support children.

But it is doubtful this proposal would help more people work. It would discourage marriage by rewarding fathers who do not marry or support their children. When a male marries, the subsidy would be eliminated.

So the policy would intensify the penalties against marriage already in the welfare system.  Moreover, creating a new spending program that supposedly promotes work while nearly all the existing programs discourage work makes no sense. It simply builds a bigger government.

Rather than keep spending more money we don’t have and running up government debt even further, let’s transform the existing $900 billion welfare system. For starters, welfare should require work, not subsidize idleness. As the economy improves, able-bodied adult recipients in all federal means-tested programs should be required to work, prepare for work, or at least look for a job as a condition of receiving aid.  

Next we need to rebuild marriage in low-income communities. Today, over 40 percent of children are born outside marriage. These children will spend much of their lives on welfare and in poverty. Even worse, their chance of success in adult life will be significantly impaired by the absence of a father in the home.

We should begin the vital task of bringing fathers into the home by informing at-risk couples of the benefits of marriage and by reducing the penalties against marriage embedded in the welfare system.

— Robert Rector, a national authority on poverty and welfare, is a senior research fellow in domestic policy at the Heritage Foundation. 

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