Nearly one-third of Americans received government-funded food aid in 2012, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
As Heritage Foundation expert Robert Rector has explained, there are roughly a dozen federal food assistance programs operating today. The USDA reports that 59 percent of households that participated in one of the four largest food assistance programs—food stamps, school breakfasts, school lunches, and WIC—end up receiving benefits from “two or more programs.” This indicates significant duplication, “providing participants total benefits in excess of 100 percent of daily nutritional needs.”
The welfare system also operates many means-tested welfare programs beyond food assistance. The federal government funds roughly 80 welfare programs, including 12 providing social services, 12 educational assistance programs, and 11 housing assistance programs—at a cost of nearly $1 trillion a year.
The size of today’s welfare system demonstrates the need for both opportunity-based economic policies and critical reforms to promote self-sufficiency through work. For decades, the federal government has been pouring taxpayer dollars into an increasing number of welfare programs in an attempt to tackle poverty.
Yet this system has proven ineffective at helping individuals and families reach self-sufficiency. As Heritage expert Robert Rector writes, “Except in very limited cases, such as those involving serious malnutrition, welfare programs do not yield fewer problems and better life outcomes for children.” Welfare can even have harmful consequences for families, eroding personal responsibility across multiple generations. Heritage experts David Azerrad and Rea Hederman explain that welfare
takes away a crucial ingredient of happiness: the incentive to work, to save, to improve oneself.… It fosters dependence in welfare recipients, which in turn often carries over to children. Studies have shown—not surprisingly but nonetheless quite tragically—that welfare is increasingly intergenerational.
Lawmakers have a duty to American families and to the next generation. Policymakers should transform these programs into vehicles of self-sufficiency, personal responsibility, and human dignity through positive reforms that encourage work. Such reforms will begin lifting America from a welfare state where 101 million receive government support to the opportunity society envisioned by the men and women who founded this nation.