End Federal Welfare - Don’t Mend It

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), the chairman of the conservative House Republican Study Committee, recently introduced “The Welfare Reform Act of 2011.” The legislation’s two key components are the imposition of work requirements on food stamps recipients and the capping of total spending for 77 welfare programs at 2007 levels (adjusted for inflation going forward) when unemployment drops below 6.5 percent.

From the RSC press release:

Congressional Republicans and President Bill Clinton enacted reforms in 1996 that required beneficiaries of a new welfare program (TANF) to either work or prepare for a job. President Clinton triumphantly declared these reforms would “end welfare as we know it,” and in fact millions of families have since moved off the TANF rolls and begun to provide for themselves.

Still, TANF is only 1 of 77 federal programs that provide benefits specifically to poor and low-income Americans. Despite the success of these reforms, combined state and federal welfare spending has almost doubled since 1996. Since President Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty in 1964, Americans have spent around $16 trillion on means-tested welfare. We will spend another $10 trillion over the next decade based on recent projections. Even with all these resources devoted to assistance for the poor, poverty is higher today than it was in the 1970s.

The bold text is my emphasis. I emphasized it because I have a hard time calling the reform of one welfare program a “success” when dozens of other federal welfare programs more than took its place. In my opinion, it’s analogous to winning a battle but losing the war – badly. Or, in keeping with the military theme, it was a Pyrrhic victory.

The aftermath of TANF is one reason why I’m not enthusiastic about the RSC’s legislation. Assuming the bill becomes law (it won’t anytime soon), will the scope of federal government’s powers have become more limited? Will the now commonplace attitude that the federal government exists to provide for us at our neighbor’s expense begin to recede? Will the tangled mess that is the relationship between the federal government and the states be unsnarled?

While I don’t take issue with the House conservatives’ desire to rein in welfare spending and limit the pathologies that the food stamp program engenders, it’s disappointing that the propriety of the federal government’s role in providing welfare remains virtually unchallenged on Capitol Hill.

The designers of the Constitution gave the federal government a tidy, defined list of powers – everything else was to be left to the states or to the people. Yes, that set-up has gradually been eviscerated. Yes, the federal government isn’t going to return to its more constrained origins in the near future. However, across the country there is renewed interest in reinstituting limits on federal power. Thus, there is hope for the long-term.

Policymakers who claim to share that interest would better serve this long-term hope by introducing legislation that returns powers the federal government has assumed to the states. Instead of tinkering with federal welfare programs, let’s have the public discussion and debate over the fundamental justness and desirability of letting Washington dictate how to meet the needs of the less fortunate.

[See these Cato essays (here, here, and here) for more on federal welfare programs and why both taxpayers and those in need would be better off if they were abolished. See this Cato essay for more on the desirability of fiscal federalism.]