President Obama’s own fiscal commission co-chairs described the threat in blunt words. They said that if we fail to seriously confront our debt, America would face the “most predictable economic crisis in its history.”
Americans understand the danger. And they know that federal programs are poorly managed, leading to enormous and preventable waste. In order to avoid a Greece-like debt crisis, we must make every part of the federal budget more lean and effective.
One area where this can clearly be achieved is in our welfare spending. Costs have risen to roughly $900 billion a year — about $700 billion in federal funds and $200 billion in state contributions or obligations to the same federal programs.
Food stamps represent one of the largest welfare expenses. In the 1970s, about 1 in 50 Americans received the benefit. Today, it’s almost 1 in 7. Over the last three years, the food stamp budget has doubled, and over the last 10 it has quadrupled. It will increase another 14 percent this year to almost $90 billion — more than twice our highway budget, three times our budget for Pell Grants, and nearly six times our budget for customs and border security.
There is no doubt the struggling economy has increased the number of Americans on food stamps. But that alone cannot explain the surge. The food stamp budget doubled between 2001 and 2006 — during which time unemployment stayed around 5 percent.
No federal program can grow this large, this fast, without experiencing significant waste and abuse. And because the program is managed at the state level, yet funded federally, states lack incentive to perform oversight. They pay for any investigations they launch, and successful enforcement means fewer tax dollars flowing into the state.
A recent article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that Wisconsin food stamp recipients routinely sell their benefit cards on Facebook. They also reported that that “prosecutors have simply stopped prosecuting the vast majority of [food stamp] fraud cases in virtually all counties, including the one with the most recipients, Milwaukee.” But even for supporters of the status quo, this is short-sighted: turning a blind eye to abuse only means the program will run out of funds sooner — for all recipients.
Large numbers of college students who are not eligible also receive the federal benefit. Michigan, to its credit, recently removed 30,000 college students, who did not qualify, from their state’s rolls. But a $2 million lottery winner in that state was allowed to keep his benefits because it was determined the winnings didn’t count as income but as an asset.
Another cause of food stamp growth has been something called categorical eligibility, which exempts people from the requirements passed into law. The way it works is that if you use other federal programs, you can automatically receive food stamps as a reciprocal benefit —even if your financial assets are greater than what the program allows. In one state, eligibility is automatic when one uses a pregnancy hotline. Sometimes, all that’s required is to receive a food stamp brochure in the mail. That’s why I put forward a modest reform in the Senate to end categorical eligibility, so only those who meet the program’s requirements receive the program’s benefits. This would not impact the other benefits received by food stamp recipients – from housing assistance to medical care and income support.
Reforming the way we deliver welfare is the compassionate thing to do. The result of welfare reform in 1996 was less poverty, less teen pregnancy, more work, and more people successfully caring for themselves.
Unfortunately, since then, members in both parties have failed to protect these important gains. So we now find ourselves in need of welfare reform for the 21st century.
It is time to re-engage the national discussion over how the receipt of welfare benefits can become damaging not merely to the Treasury but also to the recipient. Left unattended, the safety net can become a restraint, permanently removing people from the workforce. And federal programs, unmonitored, can begin to replace the normal family, church, and community as a source of aid and support. We need to re-establish the moral principle that federal assistance should be seen as temporary where possible, and the goal should be to help people become independent and self-sufficient.
Such reforms, made sincerely and with concern for those in need, will improve America’s social, fiscal, and economic health. Empowering the individual is more than sound policy. It remains the animating idea behind this nation.
Jeff Sessions, R-Mobile, represents Alabama in the U.S. Senate.