If you listened to even a tiny fraction of the blather about welfare reform over the past four years, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was an issue of major importance, an issue that by dint of sheer weightiness would dominate the national political discourse, what with its budgetary impact and all. A closer examination is obviously warranted.

The federal budget, as distinguished from what Washington actually spends, is somewhere in the vicinity of $1.5 trillion. (Actual spending exceeds this figure by about ten percent, about the same percentage as during the Nixon years, and about a third the figure run up during the heady years of Reagan/Bush.)

How much of this is actually spent on Welfare As We Know It? Five hundred billion? Seven hundred billion? Actually, it's less than one hundred billion — including all flavors of AFDC and food stamps, but not including items which are part of Social Security, which are considered "off-budget".

Over a mere six percent of the budget, therefore, Congress and the White House have been circling each other in some grisly pas de doofus for the better part of four years. No small part of the blame must go to the President, who made a campaign issue of it in 1992 in the hopes of keeping the issue out of the hands of the Republicans, and who has embraced the current bill in the hopes of keeping the issue out of the hands of the Republicans. The GOP, for its part, has never gotten out of the habit it fell into during its days as minority party, of affixing Bizarro World amendments to all manner of bills, mostly for purposes of posturing but occasionally to pay back sponsors, and the 1994 freshmen learned quickly. On the other hand, so did the newly-outnumbered Democrats.

Besides, poor people are easy targets, and if there's anything our debased political dialogue demands, it's an easy target. Much is made of the character-building aspects of poverty, most often by people who by the grace of God or some other malpractitioner of fate never had to endure it themselves. Modern political advertising caters to the smug, and human nature is extremely efficient at finding someone to view as an inferior.

And most important, welfare money is being wasted, by which we mean it's not being spent on us. Let the hatchet men threaten our Social Security (over $300 billion and, I remind you, "off-budget") or Medicare (about the same and going up even faster), and we're quick to squawk. But those poor people? Screw 'em.

Of course, we're still running a budget deficit, and although it's a lot smaller than it was a decade ago, it's still a worry, and interest on the public debt is a good twenty percent of the annual budget, which is a good reason to worry. And there's a lot to be said for reducing the size of government generally, if only to make it less effective should it decide to become (more) tyrannical — as inevitably it will. The concept is clear and sensible; the execution is pretty much what you'd expect from five hundred-odd people with six-figure incomes who fancy themselves champions of the common man.

When someone says, "No subsidies for anyone, anywhere, no matter what" — maybe then we'll have some actual reform. Don't wait up.

The Vent

3 August 1996

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 Copyright © 1996 by Charles G. Hill