The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported last week that even with improvements in the economy, food stamp participation rates have reached all-time highs.

Since 2008, enrollment has increased by 70 percent, reaching a record 47.8 million this past December. Funding for the food stamp program—or, as it’s now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—has doubled since 2008, hitting nearly $80 billion in fiscal year 2012.

A significant portion of the increase in enrollment is due to the “sluggish job market and a rising poverty rate,” as WSJ puts it. However, there’s more to the story.

Under the Clinton Administration, a “broad-based categorical eligibility” rule was put into place. This allowed states to ease income and asset requirements and thus expand eligibility. With encouragement from the Obama Administration, 43 states have now adopted broad-based categorical eligibility. WSJ reports:

The resulting change in the program’s structure has been profound. In 2006, 18.7% of SNAP households qualified through an easier screening process. In 2011, that number reached 65.8%. The change didn’t mean the majority of SNAP beneficiaries had large savings accounts. Rather, it meant that states were no longer checking, according to state guidelines and program officials.

On top of broad-based categorical eligibility, in 2009, as part of the stimulus bill, the Obama Administration suspended food stamps’ work requirements for able-bodied adults. The suspension was to be only temporary and end in 2010. However, Obama’s last two budgets called for a continuation of the suspension. Instead of waiting for Congress to act, the Administration began issuing work requirement waivers.

Food stamps are just one of nearly 80 federal means-tested welfare programs and only one of a dozen that provide assistance specifically for food. Another dozen provide funding for social services and another dozen provide educational assistance. There are 11 housing assistance programs, 10 cash assistance programs, nine vocational training programs, seven medical assistance programs, three energy and utility assistance programs, and three child care or child development programs.

The government’s welfare system has continued to expand in size since the “War on Poverty” began in 1965. Total government welfare spending is nearly $1 trillion annually, and under current projections will continue to climb. Yet, while a larger government welfare system may mean more aid to address the symptoms of poverty, the welfare system fails to address the underlying causes of poverty and can often lead to a trap of dependence.

Like the 1996 welfare reforms that resulted in major declines in the welfare rolls and a surge in employment among low-income Americans, the food stamp program should similarly be reformed to promote work among able-bodied adults.

Heritage’s Robert Rector and Katherine Bradley note that in 2010

[a]ltogether, each month, some 7 million to 7.5 million work-capable households received food stamps while performing no work or working less than 30 hours per week. These low levels of work are not simply the product of the current recession: They are typical of food stamp recipients even in good economic times.

Welfare should aim to help those in need but must at the same time promote work and self-reliance. It’s time to reform food stamps to meet this goal.