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Uncovering the Hidden Welfare State: 69 Means-tested Programs and $940 Billion in Annual Spending

By

Testimony before
The Subcommittee on Human Resources
Committee on Ways and Means United States
House of Representatives

April 5, 2011

My name is Robert Rector. I am a Senior Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation. The views I express in this testimony are my own, and should not be construed as representing any official position of The Heritage Foundation.

Summary

The means-tested welfare system consists of 69 federal programs providing cash, food, housing, medical care, social services, training, and targeted education aid to poor and low-income Americans. Means-tested welfare programs differ from general government programs in that they provide aid exclusively to persons (or communities) with low incomes.

In FY 2011, federal spending on means-tested welfare, plus state contributions to federal programs, will reach $940 billion per year. The federal share will come to around $695 billion, or 74 percent, while state spending will be around $250 billion, or 26 percent.

Combined federal and state means-tested welfare is now the second-largest category of overall government spending in the nation. It is exceeded only by the combined cost of Social Security and Medicare. Welfare spending is greater than the cost of public education and is greater than spending on national defense.

In the two decades before the current recession, means-tested welfare was the fastest growing component of government spending. It grew more rapidly than Social Security and Medicare, and its rate of increase dwarfed that of public education and national defense.

Despite the fact that welfare spending was already at record levels when he took office, President Obama has increased means-tested welfare spending by a third. This is a permanent, not a temporary, increase in spending. According to the President’s budget plans, means-tested welfare will not decline as the recession ends but will continue to grow rapidly for the next decade. Obama plans to spend at least $10 trillion on means-tested welfare over the next ten years.

In FY 2008, means-tested welfare assistance amounted to around $7,700 for each poor and low-income person in the U.S. population (those with non-welfare incomes below 200 percent of poverty).

In FY 2011, total means-tested spending going to families with children will be about $470 billion. If this sum were divided equally among the lowest-income one-third of families with children (around 14 million families), the result would be around $33,000 per low-income family with children.

Means-tested spending comprises a vast, hidden welfare state. The public is almost totally unaware of the size and scope of government spending on the poor. This is because Congress and the mainstream media always discuss welfare in a fragmented, piecemeal basis. Each of the 69 programs is debated in isolation as if it were the only program affecting the poor. This piecemeal approach to welfare spending perpetuates the myth that spending on the poor is meager and grows little, if at all.

The piecemeal, fragmented character of the hidden welfare system makes rational policy-making and discussion impossible. Sound policies to aid the poor must be developed holistically, with decision makers and the public fully aware of the magnitude of overall spending. To accomplish this, Congress should establish a cap or limit on the future growth of total means-tested spending.

When the current recession ends, or by 2013 at the latest, total means-tested welfare spending should be returned to pre-recession levels, adjusted for inflation. In subsequent years, aggregate welfare spending should grow no faster than inflation. This type of spending cap would save the taxpayers over $2 trillion during its first decade. An aggregate welfare spending cap of this sort is contained in H.R. 1167, The Welfare Reform Act of 2011, introduced by Congressman Jim Jordan (R-OH).

The Hidden Welfare State

Most discussion of government spending and deficits assumes that the federal budget consists of four principal parts: entitlements (meaning Social Security and Medicare), defense, non-defense discretionary spending, and interest. This perspective is misleading because it ignores the hidden welfare state: a massive complex of 69 federal means-tested anti-poverty programs.

Means-tested welfare spending or aid to the poor consists of government programs that provide assistance deliberately and exclusively to poor and lower-income people.[1] By contrast, non-welfare programs provide benefits and services for the general population. For example, food stamps, public housing, Medicaid, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families are means-tested aid programs that provide benefits only to poor and lower-income persons. On the other hand, Social Security, Medicare, police protection, and public education are not means-tested; they provide services and benefits to persons at all income levels. Means-tested programs are anti-poverty programs: they are intended to increase the living standards or improve the capacity for self-support among the poor and near-poor.

The size of the federal means-tested aid system is particularly large because it is funded not only with federal revenue but also with state funds contributed to federal programs. Ignoring these matching state payments into the federal welfare system results in a serious underestimation of spending on behalf of the poor. Prior to the current recession, one dollar in seven in total federal, state, and local government spending went to means-tested welfare.

Combined federal and state means-tested welfare spending is in fact the second-largest category of overall government spending in the nation today. The cost of means-tested welfare falls short of the combined cost of Social Security and Medicare but exceeds the cost of public education and national defense.

The 69 means-tested programs operated by the federal government provide a wide variety of benefits. They include:

  • 12 programs providing food aid;
  • 10 housing assistance programs;
  • 10 programs funding social services;
  • 9 educational assistance programs;
  • 8 programs providing cash assistance;
  • 8 vocational training programs;
  • 7 medical assistance programs;
  • 3 energy and utility assistance programs; and,
  • 2 child care and child development programs.

A full list of these programs is provided at the end of this testimony. (Note: Social Security, Medicare, veterans programs, unemployment insurance, and workmen’s compensation are not considered means-tested aid and are not included in this list.)

In FY 2011, federal spending on means-tested welfare, plus state contributions to federal programs, will reach over $940 billion per year. The federal share will come to around $695 billion, or 74 percent, while state spending will be around $250 billion, or 26 percent.

In recent years, 52 percent of total means-tested spending went to medical care for poor and lower-income persons, and 37 percent was spent on cash, food, and housing aid. The remaining 11 percent was spent on social services, training, child development, targeted federal education aid, and community development for lower-income persons and communities. Roughly half of means-tested spending goes to disabled or elderly persons. The other half goes to lower-income families with children, most of which are headed by single parents.

Welfare Spending: The Fastest Growing Component of Government Spending

For the past two decades, means-tested welfare or aid to the poor has been the fastest-growing component of government spending, outstripping the combined growth of Medicare and Social Security spending, as well as the growth in education and defense spending. Over the 20-year period between FY 1989 and FY 2008, total means-tested spending increased by 292 percent. The increase in combined Social Security and Medicare spending was 213 percent over the same period.

Means-tested spending on cash, food, and housing increased more rapidly (196 percent) than Social Security (174 percent). The growth in means-tested medical spending (448 percent) exceeded the growth in Medicare (376 percent).[2] The growth in means-tested aid greatly exceeded the growth in government spending on education (143 percent) and defense (126 percent). Aid to the poor is likely to continue to grow rapidly for the foreseeable future.

“Slashing” Spending on the Poor: The Perpetual Myth

Since the beginning of the War on Poverty, spending on the poor has increased 13-fold after adjusting for inflation. Yet throughout the steady 40-year climb in welfare spending, the Left has perpetually and shrilly claimed the opposite: that spending on the poor has been “slashed.” A typical example of this occurred during the most recent presidential election cycle when candidate Barack Obama angrily proclaimed, “George Bush spent the last six years slashing programs to combat poverty.”[3]

This charge was remarkable given that total annual means-tested spending actually increased by 68 percent under President Bush. Not only did total spending increase, but virtually every category of welfare aid increased dramatically: Cash spending grew by 67 percent, medical spending by 72 percent, food spending by 89 percent, housing by 34 percent, energy by 76 percent, targeted education by 50 percent, child development by 52 percent, and community development by 50 percent.[4] Of the nine categories of means-tested spending, eight increased dramatically. Only job training spending (which comprises one percent of total welfare) did not increase. After adjusting for inflation, total means-tested spending increased by 35 percent under President Bush. Cash, food, and housing grew by one-third. Although Obama’s remarks were demonstrably false, he was never challenged by the press.

Obama’s charges of “slashing” spending on the poor are symptomatic of the historical debate over welfare. Throughout the 40-year history of the War on Poverty, liberals have routinely charged that spending on the poor was being cut when in reality expenditures were climbing steadily to record levels. One oft-repeated ploy is to find one small program where spending has been recently trimmed, then denounce the cuts as evidence that overall spending on the poor is going down while conveniently ignoring the fact that spending in the other 68 means-tested programs is growing rapidly. The mainstream press generally amplifies this type of charge without challenge.

Throughout the War on Poverty, the mainstream press has treated spending on the poor as privileged and largely immune to criticism. Proposals to shave a minute fraction of spending growth off a single program, such as school lunch subsidies, have been met with a firestorm of media attention, but massive ongoing expansions in welfare overall are seldom, if ever, reported. As a result, means-tested aid has risen from 1.2 percent of GDP to 5.0 percent with virtually no public awareness or debate.

Growth of the Welfare State

Welfare spending has grown enormously since President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the War on Poverty. Welfare spending was 13 times greater in FY 2008, after adjusting for inflation, than it was when the War on Poverty started in 1964. (See chart 1.) Means-tested welfare spending was 1.2 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) when President Johnson began the War on Poverty. In 2008, it reached 5 percent of GDP. Over the next decade, total means-tested spending is likely to average roughly 6 percent of GDP.

Annual means-tested welfare spending is more than sufficient to eliminate poverty in the United States. The U.S. Census Bureau, which is in charge of measuring poverty and inequality in the nation, defines a family as poor if its annual income falls below official poverty income thresholds. If total means-tested welfare spending were simply converted into cash benefits, the sum would be nearly four times the amount needed to raise the income of all poor families above the official poverty line.

Since the beginning of the War on Poverty, government has spent $15.9 trillion (in inflation-adjusted 2008 dollars) on means-tested welfare. In comparison, the cost of all other wars in U.S. history was $6.4 trillion (in inflation-adjusted 2008 dollars).

Welfare Spending Increases under the Obama Administration

Table 1 shows the growth in means-tested spending over recent years. In FY 2007, total government spending on means-tested welfare or aid to the poor was a record high $657 billion. By fiscal year 2011, total government spending on means-tested aid will rise to $944 billion, nearly a 50 percent increase.

Table 1. Growth in Means-Tested Spending



Federal Spending

(in billions)

State Spending

(in billions)

Total Spending

(in billions)

FY 2007

$468.7

$189.2

$657.9

FY 2008

$522.3

$191.6

$714.1

FY 2009

$612.7

$167.2

$779.9

FY 2010

$695.3

$192.7

$888.0

FY 2011

$694.9

$249.4

$944.4


President Obama’s increase in federal means-tested welfare spending during his first two years in office is two-and-a-half times greater than any previous increase in federal welfare spending in U.S. history, after adjusting for inflation.

Obama’s Welfare Spendathon Versus the Cost of the Iraq War

Under President Obama, government will spend more on welfare in a single year than President George W. Bush spent on the war in Iraq during his entire presidency. According to the Congressional Research Service, the cost of the Iraq war through the end of the Bush Administration was around $622 billion. By contrast, annual federal and state means-tested welfare spending will reach $888 billion in FY 2010. Federal welfare spending alone will equal $695 billion in that year.

While campaigning for the presidency, Obama lamented that “the war in Iraq is costing each household about $100 per month.” Applying the same standard to means-tested welfare spending reveals that welfare cost each household $638 per month in 2010.

Obama Plans Permanent Increases in Welfare

Supporters of the President’s spending might counter that these spending increases are merely temporary responses to the current recession. But that is not the case; most of Obama’s spending increases are permanent expansions of the welfare state. According to the long-term spending plans set forth in Obama’s FY 2010 budget, combined federal and state spending will not drop significantly after the recession ends. In fact, by 2014, welfare spending is likely to equal $1 trillion per year.

According to President Obama’s budget projections, federal and state welfare spending will total $10.3 trillion over 10 years (FY 2009 to FY 2018). This spending will equal over $100,000 for each taxpaying household in the U.S.

Means-Tested Welfare Spending on Lower-Income Persons

With 69 overlapping means-tested programs serving different low-income populations, it is difficult to determine the average level of benefits received by low-income persons. One way of estimating average welfare benefits per recipient would be to divide total means-tested spending by the total number of poor persons in the United States. According to the Census Bureau, there were 39.8 million poor persons in the U.S. in 2008. An additional 1.5 million persons lived in nursing homes. (These individuals, though mostly poor, are not included in the annual Census poverty and population survey.) Total means-tested spending in 2008 was $708 billion. If this sum is divided by 41.3 million poor persons (including residents in nursing homes), the result is $17,100 in means-tested spending for each poor American.

However, this simple calculation can be misleading because many persons with incomes above the official poverty levels also receive means-tested aid. Although programs vary, most means-tested aid is targeted to persons with incomes below 200 percent of poverty. Thus, a more a accurate sense of average total welfare spending per recipient can be obtained if total welfare aid is divided among all persons within this larger group. Dividing total means-tested aid by all persons with incomes below 200 percent of poverty results in average welfare spending of $7,700 per person, or around $30,000 for a family of four.

Means-tested Spending on Families with Children

Another way of examining spending levels is to look at welfare spending on families with children. In FY 2011, total means-tested spending will be $940 billion. About half of this spending ($470 billion) will go to families with children. (Around one-third of this spending will go to medical care.)

If the $470 billion in welfare spending were divided equally among the lowest-income one-third of families with children (around 14 million families), the result would be around $33,000 per low-income family with children.

In addition, most of these lower-income families have earned income. Average earnings within the whole group are typically about $16,000 per year per family, though in the midst of a recession, earnings will be lower. If average welfare aid and average earnings are combined, the total resources are likely to come to between $40,000 and $46,000 for each lower-income family with children in the U.S. It is very difficult to reconcile this level of spending with conventional claims that millions of lower-income families are chronically hungry, malnourished, or ill-housed.

Conclusion

Means-tested spending comprises a vast, hidden welfare state. The public is almost totally unaware of the size and scope of government spending on the poor. This is because Congress and the mainstream media always discuss welfare in a fragmented, piecemeal basis. Each of the 69 programs is debated in isolation as if it were the only program affecting the poor. This piecemeal approach to welfare spending perpetuates the myth that spending on the poor is meager and grows little, if at all.

The piecemeal, fragmented character of the hidden welfare system makes rational policy-making and discussion impossible. Sound policies to aid the poor must be developed holistically, with decision makers and the public fully aware of the magnitude of overall spending. To accomplish this, Congress should establish a cap or limit on the future growth of total means-tested spending.

When the current recession ends, or by 2013 at the latest, total means-tested welfare spending should be returned to pre-recession levels, adjusted for inflation. In subsequent years, aggregate welfare spending should grow no faster than inflation. This type of spending cap would save the taxpayers over $2 trillion during its first decade. An aggregate welfare spending cap of this sort is contained in HR 1167, The Welfare Reform Act of 2011, introduced by Congressman Jim Jordan (R-OH).

History of Total Welfare Spending

Appendix C page 1

Appendix C page 2

Appendix C page 3

Show references in this report

[1] The only exception to this rule is a small number of means-tested programs that provide aid to low-income communities rather than individuals.

[2]Some have attributed the rapid growth in means-tested medical spending to inflation in medical prices. Medical prices only doubled during the period. The rest of the increase was due to expansions in the number of recipients and services provided.

[3]Barack Obama, “Changing the Odds for Urban America,” speech in Washington, D.C., July 18, 2007, at http://www.barackobama.com/2007/07/18/remarks_of_senator_barack_obam_19.php (August 27, 2009).

[4]All figures refer to combined federal and state spending between FY 2000 and FY 2008 in current dollars. Since candidate Obama was speaking in 2007, one might infer that he was commenting on FY 2006 spending levels. Perhaps spending was dramatically lower in 2006. Examining spending changes between 2000 and 2006 reveals nearly the same pattern presented in the main text: Overall spending increased by half, and every sub-category of spending except training and community development increased substantially faster than inflation.

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