This year marks the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty. Since that time, annual means-tested welfare spending has increased by 16-fold, now costing taxpayers nearly $1 trillion a year. And the omnibus bill keeps spending at this sky-high level.
The means-tested welfare system is massive and is the fastest growing part of government spending. The federal government currently operates roughly 80 means-tested welfare programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care and social services to poor and lower-income Americans. Nearly one-third of Americans receive benefits from at least one of these programs.
Food stamps is one of the largest of the welfare programs. Its cost has jumped dramatically over the last decade or so, doubling from less than $20 billion in fiscal year 2000 to about $40 billion in fiscal year 2007. By fiscal year 2012, costs doubled again to nearly $80 billion. The omnibus keeps food stamp spending at historically high levels: $82 billion.
Congress had the opportunity to make much-needed policy reforms to food stamps when it passed the farm bill earlier this year. Yet it failed to make the needed changes that would help point the program as a whole toward self-sufficiency. Instead, the bill included a work option that does not change the character of the food stamp program overall.
The most important reform to food stamps should be a work requirement that requires able-bodied adult recipients to work, prepare for work or at least look for work in exchange for receiving assistance. This would promote self-sufficiency and ensure funding is going to those most in need.
Congress also should address welfare’s out-of-control spending. Along with promoting work in programs such as food stamps, policymakers should place a cap on total means-tested welfare spending, allowing costs to increase only at the rate of inflation. A cap would make it necessary for policymakers to prioritize where welfare money is spent. A cap like this would save approximately $2 trillion over the next 10 years.
The U.S. welfare system has been expanding for decades, and its track record of helping low-income Americans achieve self-sufficiency is poor. If policymakers want to help those in need, as well as get welfare spending on a more prudent course, then they must take welfare reform seriously.