Seventy-seven different federal government programs simultaneously attempt to address the needs of the poor. The cost of these programs is climbing faster than Social Security, Medicare or defense. The welfare issue hasn’t been touched in over 15 years, so it’s past time to streamline this overlapping and wasteful mess.
On Thursday, Sen. Jim DeMint introduced the Welfare Reform Act, hoping to instill some fiscal responsibility. The South Carolina Republican told reporters that, “As we focus on our welfare system, we have to accept the fact that we have not solved the problem, that we have discouraged self-sufficiency. We have more people in poverty now than we did 10 years ago.”
According to Mr. DeMint, federal spending on all welfare programs, which includes Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Head Start and food stamps, costs taxpayers over $700 billion in 2011. Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, explained that, “We had significant and meaningful welfare reform in 1995. But it was one program only, one of 77. And we’re due for another installment of positive welfare reform, particularly in the midst of this debt crisis.”
The Senate legislation would cap spending on these programs at pre-stimulus levels (indexed for inflation), which the Heritage Foundation estimates would save $2.4 trillion over 10 years. Federal welfare funds would start to be block granted to states that reduce poverty and increase self-sufficiency. The president would be required to disclose in his annual budget the total cost for the 77 programs. The Department of Agriculture would be forced to stop allowing food stamps to be used at fast food restaurants.
In April, Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican, introduced this welfare reform legislation in the House, where it awaits consideration.
Republican presidential candidates have also taken up the cause. In a debate in Texas earlier this month, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain each offered their own take. The former House speaker wants all programs tied to some requirement, saying, “If you are an able-bodied person and you are getting something for nothing, then we are pretty stupid for giving it to you.” For example, he would tie federal unemployment benefits to work-training programs.
Both Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Cain want to block grant welfare funds to the states, with the flexibility to modify the programs to meet specific needs. The former Godfather Pizza CEO would change the unemployment process so that each time someone loses a job, he would get half the length of benefits as the last time. “You make it a diminishing benefit because that’s going to make you work a little harder to get out there and try and find a job,” he explained.
There are a lot of excellent reform ideas on the table. Members of the supercommittee are struggling to agree on even the tiniest savings in the annual $3.6 trillion budget. Meanwhile, we know there’s no way 77 government programs with the same general purpose aren’t filled with waste and duplication.
These conservative plans would do more to empower people to rise out of poverty and dependency than the current bloated system of handouts.
Emily Miller is a senior editor for the Opinion pages at The Washington Times.