The Heritage Foundation

News Releases

June 24, 2010

June 24, 2010 | News Releases on

Curb Welfare to Ease Spending Crisis, Heritage Urges

Washington , D.C. , June 24, 2010 Over $10 trillion in welfare spending will drive the nation to bankruptcy unless Congress puts on the brakes and passes reforms that hold increases to inflation, tie government assistance to work and encourage other responsible behavior, a new report from The Heritage Foundation concludes.

“Careful policy reforms focused on fiscal restraint, strong work requirements, the promotion of marriage and personal responsibility can transform the federal welfare system,” the report states, “reducing dependence on government and increasing the well-being of families and children.”

The Heritage study, co-authored by welfare experts Robert Rector and Katherine (Kiki) Bradley, arrives as President Obama and congressional leaders seek to push through $2.5 billion more in “emergency” welfare spending.

Using the recession as cover, liberals continue to undo the welfare reforms – including work requirements for able-bodied adults – passed by Congress in 1996 and signed into law by President Clinton. Taxpayers would be better served if lawmakers instead looked to common-sense controls on the nation’s six dozen welfare programs as part of the solution to runaway federal spending and resulting budget crisis, Heritage argues.

Welfare spending totals $953 billion in Obama’s fiscal 2011 budget request – a jump of 42 percent from fiscal 2008, the final complete budget year of George W. Bush’s presidency. The Obama administration plans to spend more than $10.3 trillion on means-tested welfare – or about $100,000 for everyone in the poorest third of the population.

Total Means-Tested Welfare Spending, by Decade

Hear podcast: Heritage’s Katherine (Kiki) Bradley on welfare spending.

Rather than continue to allow unrestrained growth in the more than 70 anti-poverty programs, Bradley and Rector recommend that, once the current recession ends, Congress should roll back welfare spending to pre-recession levels and limit future increases to the rate of inflation. This cap would save $1.4 trillion in 10 years.

Today only one welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), effectively promotes self-reliance. Reforms that created TANF in 1996 – largely inspired by Rector’s research and writing for Heritage – moved 2.8 million families off the welfare rolls and into jobs. Those gains are being reversed as the Obama administration and congressional leadership undo the signature employment and training requirements enacted 14 years ago.

“Regrettably,” Rector and Bradley write, “no other federal welfare programs have been reformed along similar lines. The TANF reform could serve as a partial model of reform for other programs for the poor.

“As government spending on means-tested welfare approaches $1 trillion per year, it is time to reboot the other poverty programs to control costs and promote greater self-reliance. In addition, efforts to rebuild marriage in low-income communities would improve the well-being of children, parents and the communities as a whole.”

Rector , a leading authority on poverty, the welfare system and immigration, is Heritage’s senior research fellow in domestic policy studies. National Review dubbed Rector the “intellectual godfather” of welfare reform for his influential work in the 1990s.

Bradley , a visiting fellow on family and societal issues in Heritage’s DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society, knows the welfare system from the inside: She oversaw TANF in 2007-2008 as an official in the Department of Health and Human Services.

Their paper, “Confronting the Unsustainable Growth of Welfare Entitlements: Principles of Reform and the Next Steps,” includes 10 charts tracking the nearly unrestrained growth of the welfare state since the mid-1960s. The charts help illustrate how welfare itself, far from “curing poverty” in America as President Lyndon B. Johnson envisioned in 1964, has become an underlying cause of poverty.

Government now spends 13 times more on welfare, adjusting for inflation, than when LBJ declared the nation’s War on Poverty some 45 years ago. Welfare is the fastest-growing portion of government spending, nearly quadrupling from fiscal 1979 to fiscal 2008 – when benefits per poor person amounted to about $16,800.

“The continuing rapid growth of welfare spending is unsustainable. The U.S. can no longer afford the automatic and unlimited growth of welfare entitlements,” Bradley and Rector conclude. “Government policy should encourage constructive behaviors leading to self-reliance and prosperity rather than rewarding counterproductive behaviors leading to costly dependence and poverty.”

In the Heritage report, Bradley and Rector lay out five principles for new reforms:

  • Roll back welfare spending to pre-recession levels once the recession ends, then limit increases to inflation. As government budget deficits push America to the brink of bankruptcy, slowing growth of the welfare state is critical.
  • Require able-bodied individuals to work, or prepare for work, at least 30 hours a week as a condition of receiving food stamps (under Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) or housing assistance (under two Public Housing funds and two Section 8 programs, Project-Based Housing and Housing Choice Vouchers). The change would promote personal responsibility by aligning the food and housing assistance with 1996 reforms to the largest cash program, TANF.
  • Put some welfare in the form of loans that able-bodied adults would be expected to pay back in part to the taxpayer. The change would contain costs while reducing the “moral hazard” created when government checks with no strings attached encourage the sort of irresponsible behavior that may have prompted a need for assistance in the first place.
  • End “marriage penalties” and encourage marriage in poor neighborhoods. Now, means-tested programs cut assistance for low-income Americans if they get married. Government should publicize the facts on how marriage prevents social ills – poverty, poor education, juvenile crime – associated with children born to unmarried women. (This ever-rising “unwed birth rate” has reached four of every 10 babies, and seven of 10 among blacks, in 2008.)
  • Reduce the legal influx of low-skill immigrants, instead preferring those who will pay more in taxes than they get in benefits, and reject blanket amnesty or “earned citizenship” for millions of illegal immigrants who then could access the welfare system.

The Heritage Foundation is the nation’s most broadly supported public policy research institute, with more than 661,000 individual, foundation and corporate donors. Founded in February 1973, it has a staff of 255 and an annual expense budget of $75.3 million.

About the Author