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Senate GOP Takes Wide View of ‘Welfare’ in Tallying Federal Commitments

A senior Senate Republican is looking to redefine what constitutes welfare as he makes a case for ratcheting back government spending on programs for the poor.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, who as Budget Committee ranking member is in line to chair the panel if Republicans win control, on Thursday released a Congressional Research Service report that he said shows total welfare spending stands at $1.03 trillion.

In fact, annual federal spending on the welfare block grant itself, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, is $16.5 billion, a number that hasn’t changed since passage of the 1996 welfare overhaul (PL 104-193). But in requesting the report, Sessions asked the CRS to look at all federal help for low- or limited-income people, resulting in the agency putting together a far-flung list of 83 programs that includes Pell Grants, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, Medicaid, the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program and the Indian Health Service.

Sessions blasted the Obama administration for continuing “controversial promotions to expand enrollment” in welfare programs.

“These astounding figures demonstrate that United States spends more on federal welfare than any other program in the federal budget,” the Alabama Republican said. “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.”

A Sessions spokesman said the senator is trying to illustrate the broad array of programs in place for the poor.

“In theory, someone could receive food stamps, housing assistance, low-cost or free health care, energy assistance and also be on welfare,” the spokesman said. “We’re trying to figure out a more concrete calculation for that. ‘Welfare,’ as it’s traditionally understood, doesn’t give you the full picture for all the financial assistance the federal government provides.”

Richard Kogan, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities, said he found the report thorough and professional in examining the programs the senator defined.

“I suspect that whatever term is used . . . opponents of those programs [will see it] as a pejorative,” Kogan said. “The names keep changing, I suspect as an attempt to stay ahead of those people who believe that sending any cash to people who are struggling, particularly people with small children who are struggling, is a bad thing to do. Now we’re talking about values and not public policy.”

“The school lunch program, Medicaid and community health centers can all be thought of as doing broadly the same thing, or be thought of as doing very different things,” he continued. “How people choose to think of them — I don’t know if that’s affected by agenda or instinct.”

States Also Contribute

The CRS estimated that federal spending on the 83 programs it examined equaled approximately $746 billion in fiscal 2011. According to Sessions, Budget Committee staff further calculated that states contribute at least an additional $283 billion to those same federal programs, which he said brings the total annual expenditure to $1.03 trillion.

Sessions said the 83 “overlapping” federal welfare programs represent the single-largest budget item in fiscal 2011 — more than the nation spends on Social Security, Medicare or national defense. Spending on federal welfare programs, he said, is up 32 percent since 2008 and now comprises 21 percent of federal outlays.

“It is time to restore — not retreat from — the moral principles of the 1996 welfare reform,” Sessions said.

In a statement, the senator detailed examples of what he maintains are Obama administration efforts to expand welfare participation, including a Spanish-language advertisement in which “an individual is pressured into accepting food stamps” and the hiring of “recruitment workers” whose goal is to increase the number of people participating in the food stamp program.

The CRS, in explaining its methodology, said that programs without an explicit low-income provision were included in the report because either their target population is disproportionately poor or their purpose clearly indicates a presumption that participants will be low income.

In addition, the report points out that federal spending for low-income programs grew at much slower rates in fiscal 2010 and fiscal 2011. Spending totaled $733 billion and $746 billion in those years, respectively, increasing by 6 percent between fiscal 2009 and fiscal 2010 and by 2 percent between fiscal 2010 and fiscal 2011.

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