More Americans rely on government assistance today than ever before. Food stamps have become almost a middle-class entitlement. At the end of 2012, a record 47.8 million people were on food stamps. Of the 115 million households in the United States, 23 million – one in five – are on the food dole.
It wasn't so long ago that such a degree of dependency would have been inconceivable. In 2001, according to federal data, 17.3 million people were receiving food aid. In little more than a decade, the food stamp rolls have almost tripled.
That didn't happen by accident. Under the last two presidents, increasing food stamp enrollment became an explicit government goal. George W. Bush sharply expanded eligibility, rebranding food stamps as "nutritional assistance" instead of welfare. States were encouraged to sign up more recipients – a ball the Obama administration took and ran with. The Agriculture Department promotes food stamps through radio ads and "public service" announcements; billboard-style ads appear on city buses. To attract even more participants, USDA advises local welfare agencies to "host social events where people mix and mingle" – show them a good time, and try to get them on welfare.
Is this any way to help the poor? FDR didn't think so. In his annual message to Congress in 1935, President Roosevelt warned that "continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber." The father of the New Deal knew that "to dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. It is inimical to the dictates of a sound policy. It is in violation of the traditions of America."
It is a mark of how far we have declined that a political figure who dared to say such a thing today would be denounced as heartless, a hater of the poor, even a racist – as Newt Gingrich found out when he tried to make an issue of soaring food stamp rates during the presidential campaign. When Massachusetts lawmakers last year tried to prevent EBT cards from being used to pay for tattoos, guns, or jewelry, Governor Deval Patrick vetoed the measure, saying he would not be a part of "humiliating poor people" or making them "beg for their benefits."
FDR feared the effect of long-term dependence on government. Political leaders today enable it.
Welfare corrupts in so many ways. What it does to taxpayers is bad, and what it does to welfare recipients is worse. But what it is doing to our nation's character and deepest values may be its most damaging impact of all.