Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal reported on the soaring rate of food stamp participation in the western United States. The author notes that this recent growth comes from “a region that has always prided itself on self-reliance and [held] … disdain for government handouts.” Regrettably, this story of growth is not that new for the food stamp program as a whole.
Ever since the program began in the 1960s, participation rates have been on an upward trend. And recession or not, in the last decade the rolls have increased nine out of the last 10 years. Not surprisingly, government spending on food stamps has also been climbing, as have the number of food assistance programs (currently, the federal government funds over 10). Whereas in the 1960s, the United States spent just over $2 billion (in constant 2008 dollars) on food assistance programs, by 2008, that number was a whopping $63 billion. And between 2000 and 2008 alone, total spending on food assistance jumped 50 percent.
But food programs account for just a portion of the total federal welfare spending pie. Today, the U.S. government operates over 70 welfare programs that span 13 government departments. And spending on these programs has only soared over the decades. Last year, the government spent roughly $900 billion total on means-tested welfare programs. And the government is projected to spend $10.3 trillion on welfare over the next 10 years.
Yet despite all of the spending, poverty rates remain virtually unchanged since the 1960s.
This course of reckless spending is unsustainable and will only contribute to the ever-mounting national debt.
In response, this week Representative Jim Jordan (R–OH)—along with Representatives Tim Scott (R–SC), Scott Garrett (R–NJ), Dan Burton (R–IN), and Louis Gohmert (R–TX)—introduced the Welfare Reform Act of 2011. The bill seeks to curb current out-of-control welfare spending once the recession ends by rolling back total welfare spending to pre-recession (fiscal year 2007) levels. This action would force the government to determine which programs to keep or cut based on whether they meet the goal of reducing poverty. Additionally, today, there are few who are aware of the entire scope of welfare spending of the 70-plus welfare programs spread far and wide throughout federal departments.
But this bill calls for government accountability by requiring the federal government to “detail current and future aggregate … welfare spending” in the President’s annual budget.
Most importantly perhaps, this new legislation also seeks to help individuals and families by promoting work. In 1996, Congress successfully reformed the largest cash assistance program—Aid to Families with Dependent Children—by creating work requirements. As a result, millions of families left welfare, and child poverty dropped dramatically. Jordan’s bill would expand work requirements to another program: food stamps, currently one of the largest welfare programs. Promoting work makes it possible for families to move off of welfare as quickly as possible so that government assistance doesn’t have to mean lifetime government dependence, as has been the case in recent decades.
Getting welfare spending under control and promoting self-reliance through work are critical to getting the nation back on track financially while helping people out of poverty. Fortunately, successful reforms of the past tell us this is possible.
Since its founding, the United States has achieved its independence and prosperity from a citizenry that has “prided itself on self-reliance” instead of “government handouts.” And it must continue to do so.