The Gateway to Dependency
America was supposed to be the land of self-government. Citizens were to govern themselves politically and morally. They would practice the virtues of self-reliance and responsibility to foster this independent character. Forged through hard work, self-reliance would prevent citizens from depending on the state. A notion of personal responsibility would encourage these independent citizens to understand the limits of government and to solve problems for themselves.
But such an independent citizen is proving to be less common every year.
Now, more people than ever before depend on the federal government for housing, food, income, student aid, or other assistance. Some 67 million Americans, from college students to retirees to welfare beneficiaries, enjoy federal support for things that were once considered to be the responsibility of individuals, families, neighborhoods, churches, and other civil society institutions. That’s about 20 percent of us on the take.
This is no accident. Federal welfare programs are growing by leaps and bounds. And the food stamps program is serving as a “gateway drug” to draw people into depending on Washington.
As Heritage experts Robert Rector and Katherine Bradley report, in the average month in 2010, roughly one of every five households in the U.S. received food stamp benefits. And those on food stamps today tend to rely on government more tomorrow. At any given moment, the majority of recipients are or will become long-term dependents. In fact, half of food stamp aid to families with children has gone to families that have received aid for 8.5 years or more. Plus, most people who receive food stamps also participate in other government aid programs as well. So those costs multiply over time.
It’s tempting to say the welfare state is expanding because the economy is weak, but the fact is that the recession isn’t the problem here.
Before the current recession, combined federal and state spending on food stamps nearly doubled. Under the Bush administration, it rose from $19.8 billion in 2000 to $37.9 billion in 2007. Since taking office, the Obama administration has more than doubled spending on food stamps again: Spending rose from $39 billion in 2008 to a projected $85 billion in 2012. Even after adjusting for inflation and population growth, food stamp spending is now nearly twice the level of any previous recession.
Instead of providing a “hand up,” food stamps is a fossilized program that, except for greatly increased costs, has changed little since its inception in the early years of the War on Poverty. It remains, basically, a “handout.”
For example, the program was largely unaffected by the welfare reform legislation of 1996, which replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), even though TANF and food stamp caseloads overlap to a great degree. TANF worked, and helped millions of people move off welfare and become self-sufficient. The same principles, rewarding work and discouraging dependency, should be applied to food stamps today.
The goal of the War on Poverty, President Lyndon Johnson said, would be “making taxpayers out of taxeaters.” He declared, “We want to give the forgotten fifth of our people opportunity not doles.” LBJ was not proposing a massive system of endlessly increasing welfare benefits doled out to an ever-enlarging population of beneficiaries. His proclaimed goal was not to create a massive new system of government handouts, but an increase in self-sufficiency: to create a new generation of Americans capable of supporting themselves without government handouts. LBJ planned to reduce, not increase, welfare dependence.
It’s still possible to make welfare temporary and to encourage individual initiative. But doing so would require major changes in anti-poverty programs, starting with food stamps.
Following the welfare reform model, food stamps should be transformed from an open-ended entitlement program that gives one-way handouts into a work activation program. Non-elderly, able-bodied adults who receive benefits should be required to work, prepare for work, or at least look for work as a condition of receiving aid.
Policymakers should also crack down on fraud, and eliminate application loopholes that permit food stamp recipients to bypass income and asset tests. Finally, Congress should cap spending on food stamps at pre-recession levels, to force the program to focus on the truly needy. That would help people move from dependence to independence.
The history of the United States is rooted in the fight for independence. The best way to ensure our country endures is to rekindle that spirit. Slashing dependence on government is a crucial step.