Welfare spending has grown substantially over the past four years, reaching $746 billion in 2011 — or more than Social Security, basic defense spending or any other single chunk of the federal government — according to a new memo by the Congressional Research Service.
The steady rise in welfare spending, which covers more than 80 programs primarily designed to help low-income Americans, got a big boost from the 2009 stimulus and has grown, albeit somewhat more slowly, in 2010 and 2011. One reason is that more people are qualifying in the weak economy, but the federal government also has broadened eligibility so that more people qualify for programs.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, who requested the Congressional Research Service report, said it underscores a fundamental shift in welfare, moving away from a Band-Aid and toward a more permanent crutch.
“No longer should we measure compassion by how much money the government spends but by how many people we help to rise out of poverty,” the Alabama conservative said. “Welfare assistance should be seen as temporary whenever possible and the goal must be to help more of our fellow citizens attain gainful employment and financial independence.”
Overall, welfare spending as measured by obligations has grown from $563 billion in fiscal 2008 to $746 billion in fiscal 2011, or a jump of 32 percent.
The report from CRS — a nonpartisan service that provides policy and legal analysis to members of Congress and staffers, regardless of party affiliation — tells a complex story of American taxpayers’ generosity in supporting a varied social safety net, ranging from food stamps to support for low-income AIDS patients to child-care payments to direct cash going from taxpayers to the poor.
By far the biggest item on the list is Medicaid, the federal-state health program for the poor, which at $296 billion in federal spending made up 40 percent of all low-income assistance in 2011. That total was up $82 billion from 2008.
Beyond that, the next big program is food stamps, at $75 billion in 2011, or 10 percent of welfare spending. It’s nearly twice the size it was in 2008 and accounts for a staggering 20 percent of the total welfare spending increase over those four years.