When the news from Washington contains words such as million, billion and trillion, its all too easy for our eyes to glaze over. Numbers that big arent easy to grasp.
But in an era when the federal government continues to spend as if the party will never end, its essential to try.
Heres one way to get a handle on those words, courtesy of Jim Bohannon, the popular radio host. He recently told me how to put them in perspective.
Take a single human hair, he said. A million of them laid side by side would stretch the length of an entire football field, end zone included.
A billion human hairs? Theyd stretch 63 miles. And a trillion -- 63,000 miles. Thats more than twice the circumference of the entire earth. Its 21 trips from New York City to Los Angeles. In short, its a huge number.
Now you have some perspective for the latest news in annual welfare spending: Its approaching the $1 trillion mark. Were talking about more than 80 means-tested programs, comprising a maze of forms, bureaucrats and regulations -- and, all total, theyre close to hitting the magic number.
Thats what the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service reported recently. Its findings echo what welfare analyst Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation has been saying. According to Mr. Rector, roughly 100 million people -- one-third of the U.S. population -- receive aid from at least one means-tested welfare program each month. Average annual benefits come to around $9,000 per recipient.
The phrase means-tested refers, of course, to a recipients means. He must demonstrate that his income falls below a certain defined poverty level to get aid, but then, as Mr. Rector has pointed out before, the aid is a handout, not a hand up. The main purpose of the 1996 welfare reform was to add a work requirement to the equation: If recipients were required to work (or at least be looking for work), welfare wouldnt become a way of life.
By the beginning of 2012, however, just four federal welfare programs had work requirements. Thanks to the Obama administration, thats down to two. The results were predictable: more people on welfare. For example, in 2009, work requirements were suspended for food stamps. Since then, the number of people on food stamps has doubled.
Wait, some may ask, how does this compare to what we spend on other parts of the budget? Surely this pales compared to what we spend on defense, right? Actually, it doesnt -- just the opposite. In 1993, welfare spending surpassed what we spend on defense for the first time since the Great Depression. Its been climbing ever since.
Under the presidents spending plans, by 2022 well be spending $2.33 on welfare for every $1 we spend on defense. (The ratio currently is $1.33 to $1.) Overall, President Obama plans to spend $12.7 trillion on means-tested welfare over the next decade.
The combined cost of Social Security and Medicare, at $1.2 trillion, is only slightly greater than the cost of means-tested welfare. This is striking because everyone knows Social Security and Medicare cost a lot, but the similar cost of means-tested welfare is generally hidden from public view.
Unsustainable debt is bad news, but we have to remember this isnt simply about dollars and cents. Its about people. After the 1996 reform, the number of welfare recipients in the primary welfare program (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) dropped by 50 percent as more people got jobs and learned to take care of themselves. Earnings and employment rose. Child poverty went down. Unfortunately, only one of 80 welfare programs was reformed, and now the Obama administration is abandoning that reform. Yet this obviously is the model we should be expanding -- not eliminating -- throughout the system.
Whoever wins the presidential race in November needs to take a hard look at the spiraling state of welfare spending or it wont be long before we need to calculate how far a quadrillion human hairs, laid side by side, would stretch.
Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).