Every so often, an article crosses your desk that makes you feel like you’ve been hit between the eyes with a sledgehammer. Even if you have a solid understanding of the topic, and you notice that the facts at hand match your previous suspicions, somehow you still have to keep a grip on yourself because it is so staggering. That is what happened to me while reading Michael Tanner’s recent report for the Cato Institute on the American welfare system.
Tanner is a recognized expert on our welfare system, having written two books on the subject during the 1990’s, when people were actually making an effort to restructure the welfare state. In fact, his work helped form the philosophical basis for the landmark welfare reform enacted in 1996. Since then, Tanner has been studying other areas of public policy, but he recently returned to look at the current welfare structure. Tanner told me that even he was shocked at what he found.
To be fair, Mr. Tanner admits that some of the recent increases in welfare expenditures are due to the recession. But he also observes that the escalation in welfare spending has been far greater during the current recession than the previous ones. Furthermore, people have hung on to their welfare participation for a much longer period of time. That being said, our Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner, was recently on Meet the Press and blamed the cause of the deficit on guess who -- the Bush Administration. Not according to Tanner’s study.
There are currently 126 separate federal anti-poverty (welfare) programs. That stupefying figure includes 33 separate housing programs run by four cabinet departments, 21 programs providing food or food assistance in three cabinet departments and one federal agency, eight health care programs in five different agencies within Health and Human Services, and, to top it off, 27 cash or general assistance programs spread throughout seven cabinet departments and six agencies. Tanner concluded that for at least the past 10 years, we’ve had more than 100 federal anti-poverty programs!
If you’re not already confused, let me fix that: the players change so often that ultimately you need a scorecard. In 2011, four obscure programs – Vista, Even Start, the Senior Companion Program (which used to be called grandchildren), and the Foster Grandparent Program – were eliminated. But of course, new ones were created. We now have the Capacity Building for Sustainable Communities Fund, the Emergency Homeowners Loan Program, and the Choice Neighborhood Planning Grants. (I probably qualify for this one because I’ve got some pretty choice neighbors.)