The financial crisis is over and the recession ended in 2009. But one of the federal government's biggest social welfare programs, which expanded when the economy convulsed, isn't shrinking back alongside the recovery.
Enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as the modern-day food-stamp benefit is known, has soared 70% since 2008 to a record 47.8 million as of December 2012. Congressional budget analysts think participation will rise again this year and dip only slightly in coming years.
The biggest factor behind the upward march of food stamps is a sluggish job market and a rising poverty rate. At the same time, many states have pushed to get more people to apply for SNAP, a program where the federal government picks up the tab.
But there is another driver, which has its origins in President Bill Clinton's 1996 welfare overhaul. In recent years, the law has enabled states to ease asset and income tests for would-be participants, with the encouragement of the Obama administration, allowing into the program people with relatively higher incomes as well as savings.
The new rules were designed to encourage people to take advantage of the program before they became destitute. By expanding the pool of potential applicants, they are redrawing the landscape of government assistance. It is one reason why SNAP appears to have evolved from a program that rose and fell with the unemployment rate to a more permanent feature of the landscape.
Republicans are often portrayed as heartless advocates for cutting government programs that ostensibly help children, senior citizens, and the poor. But the truth is that many -- I daresay most -- of the people on, say, food stamps, really shouldn’t be. Because of poorly crafted policies (dating back to the Clinton era and continuing through the present day) more and more Americans are lining up to receive food-assistance benefits. Why? Because the government has perversely incentivized -- and recruited people -- to accept government hand-outs they don’t need. And while this certainly helps Democrats expand their voting rolls -- and win elections -- how does this promote a vibrant, healthy 21st century economy? Isn't that what we want above all else?
The key to eradicating poverty is crafting policies that empower citizens -- not making them dependent on “free” benefits. As meticulously detailed in Arthur C. Brooks’ book, “The Road to Freedom,” opportunity created via the free enterprise system is what lifts humanity out of poverty -- not government. Of course, we should absolutely have a social safety net that protects the poorest among us who can’t provide for themselves. But there must be realistic and stringent restrictions on receiving government benefits. Our public policies should encourage and promote working. After all, Big Government stifles innovation and traps people in poverty; it doesn’t create prosperity.