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What Reagan Would Do

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Editor's note: This article was co-authored by Susan A. Carleson and Robert Knight.

We knew things weren’t good, but nearly one seventh of all Americans on food stamps? Forty-three million people?

That’s the news this week from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which noted that only 30 million were on food stamps as recently as 2008. For Big Government fans, this news should trigger a high five. But wait – many of those high fivers are lamenting the “epidemic of obesity” among the poor. Remember, liberalism need not be consistent or effective; it just has to be caring.

For the average American this food stamp spike should be a wake up call. It exposes two things: One, Obamanomics’ massive government spending is not improving the economy; and, two, poorly designed welfare programs create ever more dependency. Food stamps and other welfare programs were meant to be a safety net for people down on their luck, not a way of life passed from one generation to the next.

Over the years, the federal government has grown exponentially. The notable exception occurred in 1996 with the passage of welfare reform, which marked the first and only repeal of a Great Society entitlement program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

That reform, which reversed the incentives for states to increase their welfare rolls, was an unqualified success by every measure. Caseloads dropped by more than two-thirds – from a record 5 million families in 1994 to just 1.6 million families in 2009. Recipients left welfare in droves — most of them to work — and earnings rose as child poverty fell.

But, following the 2008 election, liberals in Congress and the White House began to dismantle this historic achievement. In the first “stimulus bill” they undermined the 1996 reform, made it easier for states to increase their welfare caseloads without having to meet federal work requirements, and added a host of new welfare programs. These destructive policies must be reversed.

Ronald Reagan was the first modern president to truly appreciate the wisdom of America’s founders about the virtues of limited government. He understood the dynamics of spending and the inherent danger of overburdening taxpayers and free markets.

In the early 1970s, when California was headed toward bankruptcy because of its profligate welfare spending, then-Gov. Reagan tapped Robert B. Carleson to design and implement a plan to salvage the state’s budget. And it worked. Welfare rolls plummeted and the state’s most needy received a long-delayed benefit increase. It was a true American success story.

The ultimate triumph of these efforts was the historic welfare reform of 1996, which freed millions of Americans from the narcotic of dependency. While Bill Clinton deserves credit for ultimately signing this landmark legislation, it was in fact the product of 30 years of Ronald Reagan’s dream and Bob Carleson’s tenacity.

Ronald Reagan was a man of strong beliefs, and he surrounded himself with policy experts who understood big bureaucracy and who knew how to roll back its overreach through common sense approaches. Sadly, people with those attitudes and know-how have not been in positions of power for many years. And the country has drifted, some would say lurched, leftward in its acceptance of big government.

But as we all saw last November, complacency reached its limit. Americans now hunger for a return to sensible policies that instill individual responsibility, reduce government and taxes, increase prosperity and create real – not make-work – jobs.

A new organization, the Carleson Center for Public Policy (CCPP), has been formed to assist this effort by serving as a proxy for “What Reagan would do.” Comprised exclusively of men and women who served under Ronald Reagan and who understand what works, the Center ( will offer public policy officials guidance and advice on welfare and entitlement reform.

For a detailed look at the 25-year fight that truly reformed welfare, see Bob Carleson’s book Government Is the Problem: Memoirs of Ronald Reagan’s Welfare Reformer (American Civil Rights Union, 2010)

As we celebrate Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday on February 6, it is appropriate to recall his words:

“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”

This is America. We can do better than offer our children more and more food stamps.

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