High Noon of the Welfare State

America is in decline; fewer people are working; more are in poverty; economic growth is stagnant at best; more Americans than ever believe that our best days are behind us. But one thing in America is booming: welfare. Especially federal welfare.

Historically, the federal government has had little role to play with regard to welfare programs, which have been seen as a state and local responsibility. That changed with the Aid to Families With Dependent Children program, which incentivized and federalized unwed motherhood. The results were so disastrous that in 1995, AFDC was repealed as part of a sweeping welfare reform, the greatest achievement of the Republican Congress of that era.

Since 1995, did Americans ever vote to ramp up the federal role in welfare? Not that I remember. Yet a study by the Congressional Research Service dated October 16 shows that currently, an astonishing one trillion dollars per year is being spent on federal welfare programs. How can this be? Well, there are currently at least 83 federal programs that are “explicitly intended for people with low or limited income,” not including veterans’ programs. They fall into the categories of Health, Cash Aid, Food Assistance, Education, Housing & Development, Social Services, Employment & Training, and Energy Assistance. Spending on federal welfare programs has exploded in recent years, increasing by 33% since 2008. In FY 2011, the federal government spent $746 billion on these programs–about one-fifth of all federal spending–while the states chipped in another $283 billion. That doesn’t count, of course, what state and local governments spent on their own welfare programs.

Federal welfare spending has now come to dwarf everything else the federal government does, as this chart from the Senate Budget Committee shows; click to enlarge:

So welfare spending, something that is not traditionally a federal responsibility, threatens to overwhelm everything else the federal government does. Like, say, national defense. Mitt Romney is well aware of the need to get federal spending under control; he won’t have to look far to find candidates for major cuts in federal programs.