November 30, 1995

November 30, 1995 | Commentary on

ED113095b: Missing: $13.5 Billion

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) wins my annual award for the most outrageous example of government bungling. If this isn't an example of why government should be entrusted with as little responsibility as possible, I don't know what is.

A recently completed Inspector General's (IG) audit found that the department's Food and Consumer Services (FCS) division -- which is responsible for the school lunch and food stamp programs -- could not document what it did with $13.5 billion of the $36.7 billion it spent in 1994. That's right: 34 percent of what it spent was unaccounted for! Talk about waste, fraud and abuse!

The auditors reported that at one point, when figures from the Treasury Department -- which writes the government's checks -- didn't match its own, FCS just "fudged" the numbers and forced a match. According to the IG, the employees made no effort to figure out why the discrepancies existed or what was done with the unaccounted-for money. In the private sector, this is called "fraud."

Even big-government liberals like Vice President Al Gore now agree that government is rife with waste and foolishness. For a good laugh -- rather, a good cry -- just read Gore's "National Performance Review." As I noted, the Agriculture Department is responsible for running two very costly and politically charged programs: school lunches and food stamps. These programs affect millions of American families and suck up billions of your tax dollars every year. And the bureaucrats responsible for running the programs don't even know where your money went!

Of course, the USDA bureaucrats have an excuse. They complain about a recent switch to a new automated bookkeeping system. In other words, everything was humming along just fine until somebody tried to make things work more efficiently.

Come on. Either Agriculture Department managers are incompetent and need to be replaced or the welfare state has grown so large that nobody can keep track of where our money is going.

The so-called "War on Poverty" -- Aid to Families with Dependent Children, food stamps, subsidized school lunches, etc. -- has cost American taxpayers $5.4 trillion over the past 30 years. There really aren't enough "good intentions" in the world to justify spending that much money with basically no result. The percentage of Americans living in poverty is still around the same level it was in 1965, when the spending spree began. When something doesn't work, it should be fixed. Or gotten rid of.

Of course, conservatives like me are demonized when we suggest that the welfare state undermines personal responsibility. Now, along comes this audit to suggest that welfare also affects the responsibility of the people running the system.

Think about it. Wouldn't you get a little jaded about accountability after years of passing out billions of dollars for a system that doesn't work -- and the more it is seen as a failure, the more money you are given to pass out?

It is probably a pretty safe bet that this particular agency is not unusual, that similar outrages would be found if the rest of the welfare system were audited.

In fact, the auditors in this case had to give up before finishing because the bookkeeping was so sloppy. "We discontinued our review because we did not believe that we could complete our sample in a reasonable time and at a reasonable cost," they said.

At least someone was thinking of who was picking up the tab.

Note: Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
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