GOP Senator Upset That Low-Income Aid Programs Work As They’re Supposed To

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL)

A study by the Congressional Research Service has determined that federal programs to assist low-income Americans — welfare, Medicaid, food stamps, Pell Grants, and so on — grew from a total of $563 billion in 2008 to $746 billion in 2011, according to a report today from The Hill. This increase of 33 percent so alarmed Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) that he fired off a statement yesterday calling for a wholesale retooling of the American social safety net:

These astounding figures demonstrate that United States spends more on federal welfare than any other program in the federal budget. It is time to restore—not retreat from—the moral principles of the 1996 welfare reform. Such reforms, combined with measures to promote growth, will help both the recipient and the Treasury. […]

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. 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. This is about more than rescuing our finances. It’s about creating a more optimistic future for millions of struggling Americans.

Sessions’ complaint here is not simply wrong. It’s totally bizarre. The CRS report, which Sen. Sessions and other minority members of the Senate Budget Committee requested, makes clear that the bulk of the growth occurred between 2008 and 2009 due to the stimulus — by definition, a temporary measure. Sessions also makes no mention of the 2008 economic collapse, even though caseloads for programs such as Medicaid and food stamps naturally rise in an economic downturn as more Americans lose jobs and incomes and thus need greater help.

Medicaid spending will probably continue to increase because the growth of health care costs outpaces growth in the overall economy. But that problem is unique to Medicare and Medicaid, and long pre-dates the recession or the Obama administration. Other low-income programs such as food stamps are already anticipated to return to their historic trends as a share of the economy, once the effects of the recession and the stimulus wane.

By “the moral principles of the 1996 welfare reform” Sessions most likely means the budget engineered by vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan and passed by House Republicans, which block grants most low-income programs in the same way the 1996 reform did with welfare. Those block grants act as a smoke screen to hide massive cuts that slash Medicaid by a third in ten years — kicking 14 to 27 million people off the program — while driving spending on other low-income support programs down to their lowest levels in half a century. Beyond the ten year window, those cuts go even deeper. (There’s also a strong case that welfare reform made things worse for struggling families on its own terms.)

The official poverty rate currently stands at over 15 percent, a high it’s only touched twice since the 1960s. For children it’s almost 22 percent. Alternative poverty measures meant to disentangle income and assistance programs show that food stamps alone kept more than four million people above the poverty line in 2010, while reducing poverty’s severity for millions more. Programs to help low-income Americans quite naturally ramp up in times of economic hardship. That’s what they’re supposed to do.