When President Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty, he said that it was intended to strike “at the causes, not just the consequences of poverty.” He added, “Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.” Five decades and $24 trillion later, the welfare system has failed the poor. Poverty rates remain stagnant, and self-sufficiency languishes.
Today, the federal government operates roughly 80 means-tested welfare programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to poor and lower-income Americans. Total federal, state, and local government spending on these programs now reaches over $1 trillion annually. The cost of welfare is unsustainable, and pouring dollars into an ever-increasing number of welfare programs has failed to improve rates of self-sufficiency. It is time to get welfare spending under control and to reform welfare to encourage self-reliance and human thriving in the context of community.
Account for Welfare Spending in the President’s Budget. The federal welfare system consists of roughly 80 means-tested welfare programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to poor and lower-income Americans. These programs are scattered throughout multiple government agencies. The size and cost of the government welfare system as a whole are unknown to most policymakers as well as the American public. Policy should require that the President’s annual budget outline total current welfare spending, as well as 10-year projections.
Turn Welfare into a Work Activation Program. Welfare should be based on the principle of self-sufficiency through work. The vast majority of Americans on both sides of the political aisle agree with this idea. However, very few of the federal government’s 80 welfare programs require work, and under President Obama, even some of these few work requirements have been put in peril. Most programs act as a one-way government handout. This does not benefit either the individuals receiving aid or the taxpayers. Welfare programs should be reformed to promote work. For example, the food stamp program, one of the largest and fastest growing of the government welfare programs, should require able-bodied adult recipients to work, prepare for work, or look for work as a condition of receiving assistance. A work requirement was at the heart of the successful 1996 welfare reform, which transformed the largest cash assistance welfare program into a work activation program. Other programs, particularly food stamps and public housing, should follow this model and promote work for able-bodied adults.
Advance True Federalism in Welfare. The vast majority of welfare spending (aside from Medicaid) is federal. Because states are not fiscally responsible for welfare programs, they have little incentive to curb dependency or to rein in costs. States should gradually assume greater revenue responsibility for welfare programs; i.e., they should pay for and administer the programs with state resources. Specifically, policymakers should put public housing and food stamps on a path toward state responsibility over the course of the next decade.
Promote Healthy Marriage. The breakdown of marriage is one of the greatest drivers of child poverty. Children in single-parent homes are more than five times as likely to be poor compared to their peers in married-parent homes. Children raised by their married mother and father are also more likely to avoid the risks that would hinder their ability to thrive. Tragically, more than 40 percent of all children today are born outside marriage each year, whereas in the 1960s, less than 10 percent of children were born to single women each year. In order to fight poverty, marriage must be revived. Policymakers should find ways to reduce the marriage penalties in the current welfare system, and leaders at every level of government should look for ways to promote and strengthen marriage to ensure that more children are raised by their married mothers and fathers.
Facts and Figures
- Today, the U.S. spends 16 times as much on welfare as it spent in the 1960s—about four times the amount needed to pull every poor family out of poverty—yet the federal poverty rate remains nearly unchanged.
- Total spending at all levels of government on the roughly 80 federal means-tested welfare programs, which provide cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to poor and lower-income Americans, is over $1 trillion annually.
- Welfare is the fastest growing part of government spending. Between 1989 and fiscal year 2008, means-tested welfare spending increased by 292 percent.
- In 1964, only 7 percent of births in America were outside marriage. Today, this number has climbed to more than 40 percent. Children in single-parent homes are more than five times as likely to be poor compared to their peers in married-parent homes.
Selected Additional Resources
Robert Rector, “Poverty and the Social Welfare State in the United States and Other Nations,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3057, September 16, 2015.
Robert Rector, “How Welfare Undermines Marriage and What to Do About It,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4302, November 17, 2014.
Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield, “The War on Poverty After 50 Years,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2955, September 15, 2014.
Robert Rector, “Obama’s End-Run on Welfare Reform, Part One: Understanding Workfare,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2730, September 19, 2012.
Robert Rector, “Marriage: America’s Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty,” Heritage Foundation Special Report No. 117, September 5, 2012.
Robert Rector, “Examining the Means-Tested Welfare State: 79 Programs and $927 Billion in Annual Spending,” testimony before the Committee on the Budget, U.S. House of Representatives, May 3, 2012.
Robert Rector and Jennifer A. Marshall, “The Unfinished Work of Welfare Reform,” National Affairs, Winter 2013.
Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield, “Understanding Poverty in the United States: Surprising Facts About America’s Poor,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2607, September 13, 2011.