The GOP's War on the Poor

Think Romney's welfare attack ad is just a distasteful blip on the screen? Think again.


Mitt Romney's new ad campaign, attacking President Obama over welfare, is no isolated event. In state capitals, think tanks, and Congress, American conservatives are assailing government programs for the poor with renewed fervor as the nation creeps out from recession.

The Right has ample targets. The federal safety net has swollen to unprecedented scope and size in recent years as the economic crisis, globalization, an aging population, soaring health care costs, and more-liberal eligibility standards have led tens of millions of the working poor to turn to the government for support.

Medicaid, food stamps, disability, and supplemental-income programs have morphed from emergency remedies to common crutches of working-class life. The "fundamentally destructive" and "narcotic" dependency on the social-welfare system that President Franklin D. Roosevelt warned of in his 1935 State of the Union speech is increasingly a reluctant necessity.

The cost to the taxpayers: $927 billion in state and federal funds last year.

Consider a few examples:

  • State and federal costs for Medicaid, the health care program for poorer Americans, have jumped from $159 billion in 1995 to $401 billion in 2010, and are expected to double again by 2019 to $811 billion, according to the Health and Human Services Department.

  • The number of Americans who participate in the federal food-stamp program has more than doubled in the past 10 years, and costs have quadrupled, in part because of more-lenient enrollment standards, the General Accounting Office has found. By 2020, one in 10 U.S. residents will receive food-stamp benefits, the Congressional Budget Office predicts, at a cost of $73 billion a year.

  • The more-liberal eligibility standards in Social Security Disability Insurance, which provides support to non-elderly Americans who are deemed too disabled to work, have helped spur a "rapid expansion" in that program until the share of working-age Americans claiming the benefit is approaching 5 percent. It has become something of a shadow unemployment-insurance fund. According to GAO, "the projected gap between its spending and dedicated revenues in the future raises questions about the financial sustainability of the program."

  • The Supplemental Security Income program, a social-welfare fund once reserved for blind and physically disabled individuals, has grown rapidly to some 8 million individuals receiving payments, in large part due to an influx of children with relatively common behavioral disorders like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. A 2010 investigation by the Boston Globe found that "this little-scrutinized $10 billion federal disability program has gone seriously astray, becoming an alternative welfare system with troubling built-in incentives that risk harm to children."

But the Romney ad campaign focuses, deceptively, on the core welfare program, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, which has remained relatively stable in the years since the welfare-reform act of 1996. It is the dozens of satellite programs, providing food, housing, medical care, and cash benefits, that have pushed means-tested social-welfare spending for the poorer among us -- not including Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, or worker's compensation -- toward the trillion-dollar mark.

"Means-tested spending comprises a vast, hidden welfare state," said Robert Rector, the senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, in congressional testimony this summer. "The public is almost totally unaware of the size and scope of government spending on the poor ... each of the 79 programs is debated in isolation as if it were the only program."

Progressives don't argue with the figures. "If one simply looks at total means-tested programs, costs appear to remain high in the years to come and will likely continue climbing over time as a percent of [gross domestic product]," said Robert Greenstein and Richard Kogan, in a study for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "The costs of these programs have risen significantly in the last few years."

But these kinds of increases are inevitable, the CBPP scholars argue, as our aging population, facing rising health care costs, emerges from the Great Recession. As the economy recovers, the cost of food stamps and other antipoverty programs will decline over time to the historic average, or below, CBO projects. Health care costs -- which account for about half of all social-welfare spending -- are the great exception.

Presented by

John Aloysius Farrell is the author of Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned and Tip O'Neill and the Democratic Century. He is currently writing a book on Richard Nixon.

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