When it comes to welfare, Paul Ryan’s budget takes some steps in the right direction. It has a work requirement, which is absolutely crucial to welfare reform. However, it fails to address the massive welfare system as a whole, a critical aspect to getting welfare spending back on track.
Ryan’s budget would eliminate waivers in the food stamp program that have made it possible for nearly all states to get around the program’s modest work requirement for able-bodied adults without dependents. Additionally, it “would also envision improving work incentives by requiring a certain amount of people to engage in work activity, such as job search, community-service activities, and education and job training.” Ryan would also eliminate the Obama Administration’s unlawful work waivers for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.
A serious welfare reform plan would make it mandatory for states to require able-bodied food stamp recipients to work, prepare for work, or look for work in exchange for receiving assistance. Because the vast majority—roughly 95 percent—of food stamp funding comes from the federal government, states are not generally motivated to do anything with the program beyond distributing funding, and they actually often seek to pull more people into the program.
Beyond eliminating the TANF work waivers, as Ryan does, TANF’s work requirements should be strengthened. They have been severely undermined over the years, even prior to the Obama Administration’s final blow of waivers.
Additionally, the annual budget process should clearly track the massive size and scope of the whole welfare state. The government welfare system consists of roughly 80 federally funded means-tested welfare programs that cost over $900 billion annually at all levels of government. Over the next 10 years, federal welfare spending will cost taxpayers roughly $14 trillion.
Ryan is in the unique position to report on welfare spending in the aggregate. Welfare programs are spread over multiple government agencies. In order to control future welfare spending, the budget should clearly articulate the massive size of the welfare system.
Policymakers should establish an aggregate cap on welfare spending, adjusting for inflation going forward. This would require policymakers to view the welfare state as a whole when creating policy and to prioritize welfare spending.