PJ Media

Cliff-Diving into Dependency, and Trolling for Democratic Votes

While writing up this month’s column on Oklahoma’s relatively strong economy, I came across many sets of troubling statistics about the growing dependency culture.

It started when I noticed at this USDA table that average monthly enrollment in “SNAP,” which the rest of us still know as food stamps, had risen by almost 13% in the Sooner State during the most recent federal fiscal year after going down the previous two years. I noticed that this increase was much lower than the national average of 19%. Then I remembered seeing a headline telling me that food stamp enrollment had almost reached 40 million as of February. It turns out that this is an increase of 25% over the number enrolled in December 2008, just 13 months earlier.

After further research, I’ve learned that welfare-related “entitlement” program enrollment and spending are up in virtually every major federal program. Eligibility rules are looser. Individual and family benefit amounts provided have shot up. Costs are going through the roof. The menu of available benefits continues to expand.

It would be one thing if we had individuals and families starving in the streets by the millions before this wanton expansion began. But of course we didn’t. Welfare rolls were continuing 12 years of decline until about a year ago. Food stamp enrollment was growing, but in current context not by much. In August 2007, about a year before the floodgates opened, Robert Rector described the status of those deemed as being “in poverty” in the U.S. as follows:

Overall, the typical American defined as poor by the government has a car, air conditioning, a refrigerator, a stove, a clothes washer and dryer, and a microwave. He has two color televisions, cable or satellite TV reception, a VCR or DVD player, and a stereo. He is able to obtain medical care. His home is in good repair and is not overcrowded. By his own report, his family is not hungry, and he had sufficient funds in the past year to meet his family’s essential needs. While this individual’s life is not opulent, it is equally far from the popular images of dire poverty conveyed by the press, liberal activists, and politicians.

What happened?

In the case of food stamps, it has become easier to qualify for them. As I noted in March of last year, a Warren County, Ohio, couple was able to qualify for benefits even though they had $80,000 in the bank, a paid-off $300,000 home, and two fairly up-to-date vehicles (one a Mercedes). Matt Hurley at Weapons of Mass Discussion, the blogger who originally exposed this situation, also “received additional emails … (from people) who provided two other (similar) case stories.”

You can even be a college kid with rich parents and qualify for food stamps, as long as you strike an impoverished pose:

… the USDA has made it easy for them, regardless of their socioeconomic background, to qualify. Many college kids are “poor” on paper even if they’re from well-to-do homes.

And if they live at home with Mom and Dad, they still may qualify — so long as they can show that Mom and Dad prepare only half of their meals.

And how about those benefits? Well, what’s known as the maximum monthly allotment, or the amount you or your family will receive if you have no available income or resources with which to buy food under the program’s rules, went up by 9% and 13.5% in fiscal 2009 and 2010, respectively. If you don’t recall food prices increasing by 23% or so during the past two years, you’re not alone. “Food and beverages” as measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics went up 3.3% during the 12 months that ended in April 2009; the new category “food at home” has not gone up at all in the past twelve months. Until two years ago, benefit levels closely resembled USDA’s estimated budget for what it called its “thrifty meal plan.” Now I guess it’s just too much to expect eligible food stamp recipients to be frugal with taxpayers’ money.

Not that proving eligibility is particularly important. The Daily Caller carried a story in mid-February entitled “Record numbers receive food stamps as USDA turns blind eye to recipients’ finances.” It quoted a letter from SNAP Associate Administrator Jessica Shahin to the program’s regional administrators, telling them that “applicants will not need to provide documentation verifying their resources.” This makes food stamps the no-doc loans — er, make that grants — of the entitlement world.

Beyond that, there’s a built-in rules dodge that from all appearances is a recent “innovation” of the federal bureaucracy. Known as “categorical eligibility” (again, per the Daily Caller, supported by the letter from Ms. Shahin) it specifies that “anybody who receives other federal aid, such as Medicaid, automatically qualifies for food stamps in most states.”

More than a few recipients realize, especially considering the myriad other government bennies they are already receiving (and I can cite a specific personally relayed example of this), that their food stamp allotment is far higher than what they really spend on food each month. So they let relatives or friends share in the redistributed wealth. There’s also rampant fraud and abuse that the government never seems to be able to stop, to the point that one has to wonder if it really wants to stop it.

It should not surprise anyone that SNAP program costs rose 45% from $37.7 billion in fiscal 2008 to $53.6 billion in fiscal 2009. Costs are now running in excess of $5 billion a month and are on track to reach at least $63 billion by fiscal year-end.

Similar narratives could be written about “traditional” welfare (total caseload went up about 10% during the year ended September 30, 2009, to about 4.25 million recipients, after adding estimates for Michigan and Guam that are not at the link), Medicaid (enrollment was 46.9 million on June 30, 2009, up by 3.3 million during the previous 12 months), school lunches and breakfasts (a combined 7 billion meals served, obviously duplicating food stamp benefits in many cases), subsidized Section 8 housing, college aid that includes “living costs,” and even cell phones.

That’s right, cell phones. The SafeLink program, which provides free phones and a set number of minutes per month to over 2 million people, is so embarrassing that its sponsor tries to pretend that taxpayers aren’t paying for it. The site that supposedly “debunks” the claim admits that the money for the program comes from the Universal Service Fund, and that phone companies “often charge customers to fund their contributions in the form of a universal service fee you might see on your monthly phone bill.” Those of us who pay phone bills know that “often” really means “almost always.” Sorry, Factcheck.org; that “fee” is a tax.

But wait. I thought that the economy was recovering, that unemployment may have peaked, and that more people are finding jobs. Shouldn’t that bring the dependency numbers down?

Don’t be silly. If that were the case, they should have started declining several months ago. This isn’t about solving poverty. The loosened requirements and look-the-other-way attitude betray the sad truth that this is all about expanding dependency as quickly as possible and buying votes. Sensible conservatives who believe that their fortunes will go positive in November are going to have to deal with the fact that the statists have already locked in roughly 25%, and counting, of the vote.

Meanwhile, government receipts, especially from those who pay quarterly estimated taxes, continue to plummet in April as we entered what was allegedly the fourth quarter of our “recovery.” As the productive people in society peruse the landscape, is it any wonder that “going Galt” has yet to come to a halt?