Quite a few questions surround the war in Afghanistan. Should the U.S. change its approach? Would more troops help? What’s the exit strategy? Washington policymakers will spend a fair amount of time answering these queries this fall.
But there’s a bigger, longer and more expensive war that deserves scrutiny. It also requires an exit strategy: the War on Poverty.
President Lyndon Johnson launched this war in 1964. Since then it’s cost taxpayers some $15.9 trillion in constant 2008 dollars. That’s more than twice the amount ($6.4 trillion in constant 2008 dollars) our country has spent on all shooting wars, from the Revolution through Afghanistan, combined.
Total welfare spending tends to fly under the radar screen because it’s spread across so many bureaucracies. There are at least 13 government departments and agencies, 17 budget functions and 71 separate programs involved in the federal welfare state. But the whole thing is huge. Add up all the federal, state and local government spending and you’ll find aid to poor and low-income persons is the third most expensive government activity.
In 2006, welfare spending totaled almost $600 billion. That trailed only the big entitlement programs Social Security and Medicare ($878 billion) and combined government spending on education ($683 billion). American governments spend more on welfare than on defense, law enforcement and transportation.
Still, politicians often claim government doesn’t spend enough to help the poor. During last year’s campaign, for example, Barack Obama announced that, “George Bush spent the last six years slashing programs to combat poverty.” But welfare spending has vastly increased year after year, and decade after decade.
How much? In a new report from The Heritage Foundation, welfare experts Robert Rector, Katherine Bradley and Rachel Sheffield write that, “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.”
The charge that President Bush underfunded welfare simply doesn’t ring true. “During the eight years that President George W. Bush was in office, annual welfare spending rose in current dollars by 67 percent,” the Heritage researchers found. “After adjusting for inflation and population growth, welfare spending still rose by one-fourth under President Bush.”