Religion & Liberty Online

A $1 Trillion Reminder That Welfare is Failing

1-TrillionIf you are looking for good data to provide a reminder that America has lost the “War On Poverty,” Michael Tanner has compiled helpful information explaining the current state of the union in the study titled, “The American Welfare State: How We Spend Nearly $1 Trillion a Year Fighting Poverty — And Fail.” Tanner begins by noting that we are now at a point where annually,

[T]he federal government will spend more than $668 billion on at least 126 different programs to fight poverty. And that does not even begin to count welfare spending by state and local governments, which adds $284 billion to that figure. In total, the United States spends nearly $1 trillion every year to fight poverty. That amounts to $20,610 for every poor person in America, or $61,830 per poor family of three.

While welfare spending has continued to increase, poverty rates in America have basically remained the same as they were 40 years ago. In fact, though we as a nation have spent nearly $15 trillion in total welfare spending since Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty in 1964, several families in rural and inner-city America continue to be trapped in generational cycles of dependency. Something is not working.

Since President Obama took office, federal welfare spending has increased by 41 percent at a rate of more than $193 billion per year, according to the report. Much of this spending goes to feed the bureaucratic monster designed to administer public assistance. For example, Tanner notes that “six cabinet departments and five independent agencies oversee 27 cash or general assistance programs. All together, seven different cabinet agencies and six independent agencies administer at least one anti-poverty program.”

To make matters worse, it seems that the more we spend the more dependency we produce. For example, at least 106 million Americans receive benefits from one or more of these welfare programs. That’s nearly one-third of the U.S. population. Medicaid leads the assistance programs, dispensing benefits to roughly 49 million poor Americans.

The Food Stamp program is America’s second largest, involving nearly 41 million Americans, about 15 percent of the population, who look to the government for food. This is the largest percentage in American history. Millions and millions of our fellow citizens receive some form of assistance from the remainder of the programs. Given the expenditures likely to come with the implementation of Obamacare, the United States of America is trending closer and closer to officially becoming a welfare/social assistance state. The U.S. government lost the War On Poverty and we are all paying for the collateral damage.

In Centesimus Annus (1991), Pope John Paul II reminds us of the dangers posed to our future when those on the margins turn to public government social assistance as a primary means to sustain life. The way we think about helping the poor not only undermines civil society: it wounds the human soul.

Malfunctions and defects in the Social Assistance State are the result of an inadequate understanding of the tasks proper to the State. Here again the principle of subsidiarity must be respected: a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.

By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbours to those in need. It should be added that certain kinds of demands often call for a response which is not simply material but which is capable of perceiving the deeper human need. One thinks of the condition of refugees, immigrants, the elderly, the sick, and all those in circumstances which call for assistance, such as drug abusers: all these people can be helped effectively only by those who offer them genuine fraternal support, in addition to the necessary care.

Currently America’s welfare programs are not designed to lift people out of poverty but to simply make long-term poverty more comfortable. Unless radical changes are made in how we think about helping the poor, America will continue to waste trillions of dollars and fail the families that desperately need help.

Anthony Bradley

Anthony B. Bradley, Ph.D., is distinguished research fellow at the Acton Institute and author of The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone on the Black Experience.