When the news from Washington contains words such as "million," "billion" and "trillion," it's all too easy for our eyes to glaze over. Numbers that big aren't easy to grasp. But in an era when the federal government continues to spend as if the party will never end, it's essential to try.
Here's 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? They'd stretch 63 miles. And a trillion? 63,000 miles. That's more than twice the circumference of the entire earth. It's 21 trips from New York City to Los Angeles. In short, it's a huge number.
Now you have some perspective for the latest news in annual welfare spending: It's approaching the $1 trillion mark. We're talking about more than 80 means-tested programs, comprising a maze of forms, bureaucrats and regulations -- and, all total, they're close to hitting the magic number.
That's what the non-partisan Congressional Research Service recently reported. Its findings echo what welfare expert Robert Rector of The Heritage Foundation has been saying. According to 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 benefits come to around $9,000 per recipient.
The phrase "means-tested" refers, of course, to a recipient's means. He or she must demonstrate that his or her income falls below a certain defined poverty level to get aid in the first place. But then, as Rector has pointed out before, the aid is a hand-out, 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 wouldn't become a way of life.
By the beginning of 2012, however, only four federal welfare programs had work requirements. And thanks to the Obama administration, it's now 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.
But 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 doesn't. Just the opposite. In 1993, welfare spending surpassed what we spend on defense for the first time since the Great Depression. It's been climbing ever since.
Under the president's spending plans, by 2022 we'll be spending $2.33 on welfare for every $1 we spend on defense. (The ratio is currently $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 that 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 that this isn't simply about dollars and cents. It's 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 is obviously the model we should be expanding throughout the system -- not eliminating.
Whoever wins the presidential race in November needs to take a hard look at the spiraling state of welfare spending. Or it won't 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 (www.heritage.org).