Do you know what Maryland gives its welfare recipients so they can access cash and food benefits? An "Independence Card."
If that sounds a bit Orwellian, consider the perverse spending increases that the Obama administration has planned for food stamps and an array of other forms of welfare. Why perverse? Because the whole goal of the successful welfare reform of the 1990s was to reduce dependence. And the president's budget would do just the opposite.
Mind you, spending on the food-stamp program (also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) has been growing rapidly for some time now, from $19.8 billion in 2000 to $84.6 billion in 2011. Under the president's budget, this trend would continue, with nearly $800 billion in food-stamp spending over the next decade.
Note, too, that that's just one program. SNAP -- included in the farm bill now up for reauthorization -- is part of a much larger welfare system that includes 79 programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care and social services to low- and no-income recipients. It all adds up to a lot of money.
According to welfare expert Robert Rector, the architect of the '90s' reform, such "means-tested" aid (meaning that it's given to those who have demonstrated a financial need for it) is "the fastest growing component of government."
Total federal and state spending on means-tested welfare more than doubled between 2000 and 2011 -- from $431 billion to $927 billion. Around one third of the population now receives some type of means-tested welfare aid. Average cost: $9,000 per recipient.
And there's no end in sight. Except that, sooner or later, there has to be. As Margaret Thatcher once quipped of socialism, "sooner or later, you run out of other people's money." A day of reckoning can be postponed for a while, but not delayed indefinitely.
"The president's budget calls for ruinous and unsustainable budget deficits," Rector says. "An important step in reducing future unsustainable federal deficits would be to return total welfare spending to pre-recession levels."
But unless lawmakers get serious about addressing this threat, it won't happen. The national debt is more than $16 trillion -- and climbing.
To make matters worse, all this debt is truly for naught because the programs that it's financing do little to reduce poverty. If anything, they encourage it, because they don't follow the reform model of the '90s: reduce dependence by requiring work as a condition for receiving aid. Recipients can do nothing all day and still get their taxpayer-funded checks.
Oddly, the president's thinking seems to have shifted on this issue, but in the wrong direction. A campaign ad in 2008 featured the slogan: "The Obama record: moved people from welfare to work." But now the president is removing work requirements from these programs -- requirements. Of the 79 means-tested welfare programs, only three had even partial work requirements. Now Obama has pushed the number down to two.
That's a real problem. Able-bodied adults on welfare should be required to work, prepare for work, or at least look for a job. That's not too much to ask. After all, isn't the whole point of welfare to give people a helping hand, not reduce them to a state of permanent helplessness?
This point is illustrated nicely in a scene in the movie "Cinderella Man" (which I highlighted in a previous column). It's about the true-life story of boxer Jimmy Braddock. In the scene in question, we see him pay back the welfare funds that helped his family when they were desperately poor.
"I believe we live in a great country ... great enough to help a man financially when he's in trouble," he tells a reporter who asks him why. "I'm back in the black. And I just thought I should return it."
Not everybody can return it, of course. But surely this is the mindset that should prevail when it comes to changes in welfare policy.
To truly help able-bodied, non-elderly welfare recipients, we need to encourage genuine independence. We need to respect their human dignity by enabling them to get to the point where they can provide for themselves.
Unless we restore work requirements and avoid ramping up the food-stamp budget, however, that won't happen. Let's make sure it does.