by Don Azarias
November 1, 2012
According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), welfare spending has grown substantially over the past four years, reaching $746 billion in 2011. That’s more than Social Security, basic defense spending or any other single chunk of the federal government.
For the readers’ information, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) works exclusively for the United States Congress. It’s a nonpartisan service providing policy and legal analysis to committees and members of both the House and Senate, regardless of party affiliation. As a legislative branch agency within the Library of Congress, CRS has been a valued and respected resource on Capitol Hill for nearly a century. CRS is well-known for analysis that is authoritative, confidential, objective and nonpartisan. Its highest priority is to ensure that Congress has 24/7 access to the nation’s best thinking.
The steady rise inwelfare spending, which covers more than 80 programs primarily designed to help low-income Americans, got a big boost from the 2009 stimulus and has grown in 2010 and 2011. One reason is that more people are qualifying in the weak economy, but the federal government also has broadened eligibility so that more people qualify for programs. Federal welfare spending has grown by 32 percent over the past four years as a result, from $563 billion in fiscal 2008 to $746 billion in fiscal 2011. During one of their debates, Republican challenger Mitt Romney blasted President Barack Obama for overseeing a 50 percent increase in the number of people on food stamps, which has risen from 32 million to 47 million.
While a vast majority of American taxpayers whose incomes were adversely impacted by the Great Recession and are in no mood to be as generous as before to welfare recipients, there are still those who support varied social service programs that include cash payments and food stamps, child care subsidy and other government-sponsored safety nets for the poor.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama), a high-ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, who requested the Congressional Research Service report, said it underscores a fundamental shift in welfare, moving away from a Band-Aid and toward a more permanent solution. The Alabama Republican had this to say: “No longer should we measure compassion by how much money the government spends but by how many people we help to rise out of poverty. Welfare assistance should be seen as temporary whenever possible and the goal must be to help more of our fellow citizens attain gainful employment and financial independence.”
Mr. Sessions’ staff on the Budget Committee calculated that states contributed another $283 billion to low-income assistance—chiefly through Medicaid. Combined, that means the federal and state governments spent $1.03 trillion on welfare programs. The staff also reported that, at current projections, the 10 biggest welfare programs will cost $8.3 trillion over the next decade.
By far the biggest item on the list is Medicaid, the federal-state health program for the poor, which at $296 billion in federal spending made up 40 percent of all low-income assistance in 2011. That total was up $82 billion from 2008.
Beyond that, the next big program is food stamps, at $75 billion in 2011, or 10 percent of welfare spending. It’s nearly twice the size it was in 2008 and accounts for a staggering 20 percent of the total welfare spending increase over those four years.
Several programs to funnel cash to the poor also ranked high. Led by the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), Supplemental Security Income and the Additional Child Tax Credit (CTC), direct cash aid accounts for about a fifth of all welfare.
Rather than straight transfers, there are other programs that provide support for services Congress has deemed worthy of funding. They are the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or what used to be called food stamps; the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP); the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program (WIC); and Pell Grants which provide assistance for college costs, to name a few.
The CRS report looked at obligations for each program as its measure of spending. It included every program that had eligibility requirements that seemed designed chiefly to benefit those with lower incomes. The report looked at programs that had obligations of at least $100 million in a fiscal year, which meant some small-dollar welfare assistance wasn’t included.
The report was released as Obama and Romney fight over the size and scope of government assistance. Obama has taken heat from Republicans for a new policy that Republicans argue would remove work requirements from the 1996 welfare reform. The administration said it is merely adding more flexibility for states, which still would have to prove the law is meeting its jobs goals.
However, if there’s one program that the rivals agree on, it’s with regard to increased funding of the Pell Grant program to help low-income children attend college. Let’s commend both candidates for being on the same boat when it comes to providing those poor but deserving students a shot at acquiring one of the most precious gifts that a benevolent capitalistic government, like the United States’, can offer to its youth—the benefit of education.