America’s welfare state has grown into an unwieldy hodgepodge of programs that provide various forms of assistance to tens of millions of Americans. It costs taxpayers nearly a trillion dollars annually and experts predict that, absent reform, it will keep growing in the years ahead.
The welfare state acquired its girth by following a familiar script — over and over again. The latest performance came at a recent hearing of the House Education and Labor Committee, which is pondering yet another proposed expansion of government: the “Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act,” an $8 billion add-on to the nation’s school-lunch and other child-nutritionprograms. Here’s the routine:
Invite a star witness, in this case a celebrity chef, to draw media attention to the proposal.
Paint those supporting the plan as pure as the driven snow; smear those who object as callous Scrooges who (in this case) despise children.
Declare a “national crisis” to create a sense of urgency. In this case we face twin crises: nearly one in three children is obese, unfit for military service, and on track for adult-onset diabetes, while another 16 million kids go hungry because their parents must choose between “keeping the lights on or putting food on the table.”
Bring in a top dog from the administration to claim the moral high ground on behalf of those who stand to receive the latest government handout. Throw in a panel of “experts” from special-interest groups to up the ante on what needs to be done, thereby framing the chairman’s expensive ($8 billion in this case) plan as nothing more than a modest “first step.”
Finally, engage in some good old-fashioned political jujitsu. Invite a retired general to make the case that growing the welfare state can actually enhance our national security. And argue that “investing” billions today is the fiscally prudent thing to do because it will save much more in health and other societal costs down the road.
Such was the scene last week on Capitol Hill. Celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, camera crews in tow, asked the sort of question one always hears whenever Congress considers a welfare expansion. “Why,” he asked, “in this great country, where we produce enough food, are children going hungry every day?”
Committee chairman George Miller (D., Calif.), the bill’s sponsor, tugged on heartstrings, intoning: “We cannot ignore the fact that for millions of children, the only meals that they can count on are those they get at school or in child care.” He also touted the positive effects his bill would have on our fiscal mess. “If we work in the schools to both increase nutritional opportunities and educate kids about the foods they’re eating,” he insisted, “we have a chance to really, dramatically drive down future health-care costs.”
And, in a dramatic, made-for-TV gesture, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack tossed aside his prepared testimony to speak extemporaneously “from the heart.” Predictably, liberal lawmakers swooned, and pledged to do “whatever it takes” to guarantee every child a healthy meal — not only when school is in session, but also before and after the school bell rings, on weekends, on holidays, and even during their summer vacations. After all, as Chairman Miller condescendingly noted: “We can do all we can do for five days [each week] during the school year, but on weekends and during the summer, youngsters are often left to their own design.” No word from the chairman as to the whereabouts of their parents.
If this means Uncle Sam will have to “create [nutritional] standards for [school-cafeteria] vending machines and a la carte lines,” so be it. And if federal bureaucrats will be required, as Vilsack suggested, to instruct schools on “how to . . . stretch that food dollar” and “come up with innovative and creative ways to make vegetables and fruits . . . delicious and appealing,” then let’s get started on devising those federally approved school-lunch recipes.
Be still my beating heart.
Fortunately, this time a contrarian voice inserted a much-needed reality check into the script. “It is misleading,” said Heritage Foundation welfare expert Robert Rector, the lone minority witness, “to examine spending on one or two government programs in isolation. In fact, the federal government creates . . . and funds 71 different means-tested programs assisting low-income families, providing cash, food, housing and medical care.” Not surprisingly, he pointed out, most families that receive subsidized school meals also receive benefits from many other programs. “Proposals to expand funding on a single program,” Rector warned, “must be examined holistically in the context of the overall growth of extraordinary government spending.”
The average family with children in the lowest-income third of the population, Rector noted, already receives more than $30,000 in assistance annually from these programs. The total amount of spending on this population exceeds $475 billion annually — which is only about half of all welfare spending. Rector, who knows more about the circuitry of the welfare state than anyone, offered the lawmakers a confession: “I’ve spent my entire career on this type of population and this type of spending, and I can tell you I have absolutely no idea where all that money goes.” And then a warning: “Before you propose spending even more money, you ought to at least have a reasonable accounting of where this money is currently going in 70 different programs, all of them going effectively to the same population.”
Rector stood alone in recommending that Chairman Miller and his colleagues conduct some rudimentary “due diligence” before committing billions of additional tax dollars to this effort. Specifically, do these programs benefit their intended beneficiaries, poor kids? He testified to one of the many dirty little secrets of welfare policy: The most rigorous studies demonstrate that these efforts just do not work.
Take the oft-repeated claim that students in the school-lunch program achieve more academically: “In reviewing for this testimony, I was quite shocked to find . . . [that] even though there are continuing claims that school-breakfast programs increase academic performance, there are, in fact, no studies with control groups that show that whatsoever. Zero.”
But to Chairman Miller, his liberal colleagues, and the innumerable welfare-industry groups that feed at the government trough, none of this matters. In fact, Rector has spent two decades trying to convince Congress to view the 71 programs that constitute the welfare state as a unified category of federal spending, dispensing over $950 billion a year and growing. He argues Congress should enact a firm spending cap on these programs, allowing them to grow at the rate of inflation, well below the current unsustainable trajectory. Such a cap, Rector estimates, would not only save taxpayers on average nearly $200 billion a year, with cumulative savings reaching $1.4 trillion over the next decade, but it would induce Congress to demand real evaluations of whether anti-poverty programs actually help the poor, and then defund those that do more harm than good while expanding those that actually lift the poor out of poverty.
Now that’s real compassionate conservatism.
Michael G. Franc is vice president of government relations for the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in National Review Online