One of the strongest critiques of our social welfare programs is that, while they meet people’s immediate material needs, they do a much worse job at helping people escape poverty over the long term. For example, the Census Bureau released data last fall showing that the temporary pandemic era expansion of the Child Tax Credit significantly reduced poverty rates while it was in effect. But as soon as the benefits expired, poverty rates returned to pre-pandemic levels. 

At the time, I wrote that the poverty rate had not really been reduced, merely hidden behind government payments. When the programs ended, the recipients were still poor. In fact, it is fair to say that these families were poor all along: government payments merely disguised their true condition for a short time.

A new study on food programs provides additional evidence for the limitations of our welfare system. According to researchers at the Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Center for Outcomes Research at Harvard, food insecurity among adults decreased from 20.6 percent pre-pandemic to 15.5 percent in 2021, as eligibility and benefit levels were expanded for several welfare programs. In particular, the authors note that SNAP benefits nearly doubled as a result of emergency measures. However, as those pandemic-era benefits were cut back, food insecurity rates returned to pre-pandemic levels by 2022.

The authors see this as a reason for continuing and even expanding these programs. However, the report also suggests a different conclusion: recipients had not become more self-sufficient or been lifted out of poverty. The increased benefits had provided a temporary palliative, nothing more. In other words, while immediate needs were addressed, nothing in the programs’ designs helped recipients with their long-term situations.

The study also showed signs of an additional problem with the existing welfare system. Food insecurity declined even among those low-income Americans who did not receive SNAP, suggesting that other factors or programs had likely been in play. However, as the authors note, the $1.8 trillion welfare system is so sprawling and complex that it is difficult to disentangle results. Even without temporary pandemic programs, the federal government funds roughly 134 anti-poverty programs, including 23 different programs that provide food or food purchasing assistance.

I am not suggesting that it’s not important to take care of the material needs of poorer Americans, including their need for adequate nutrition.But, in the long run, policymakers need to ask themselves what the goal of welfare programs is. 

Is the goal merely to make poverty somewhat less miserable? Or is it to reduce poverty, empower people, and enable every American to rise as far as their talents can take them? If the latter, it is past time to ask tough questions about whether what we are doing today is actually working, or whether we need a completely different approach to fighting poverty—one that focuses on opportunity, self-sufficiency, and self-determination—rather than simply throwing more money at the problem.