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Our opinion: Sobering safety net program stats

It should be obvious, after reading a recent Center Square report, that state lawmakers have to do something about human services program spending in the commonwealth.

In 2000, Pennsylvania had 760,000 residents getting food stamps. Now, almost 2 million receive them. Growth in Medicaid has been similar: The state spent $10.7 billion on 1.3 million residents in 2000, but now, the state spends almost $47 billion to provide Medicaid benefits to 3.3 million residents.

Welfare expansion has outpaced population growth: Pennsylvania has only gained 700,000 residents since 2000. But the state budget is dominated by this spending that runs through the Department of Human Services. Pennsylvania’s Medicaid expenditures as a percentage of its budget is the highest in the nation, according to an analysis from the Foundation for Government Accountability.

“Human services’ line items account for 42% of our state budget — $19.1 billion,” Rep. Joe Hamm, R-Mountoursville, said during a recent hearing. “We’re seeing about a 5.2% growth year-over-year in human services, nearly $1 billion a year. The federal government matches those numbers almost a 50/50 split, so we’re getting nearly $19 billion from the federal government in these programs. “If we have accountability and integrity in our benefit programs, there’s gonna be more money for those who truly need it.”

There are dozens of reasons for the explosive growth of Medicaid spending. Some surely is fraud, as we’ve seen with any government program that serves so many people. Struggling rural economies mean there are more people struggling to make ends meet and looking to the government to provide for their families. And state governments that ease program requirements with legislation aimed at small groups end up increasing Medicaid eligibility – but rarely is there a good estimate of what those small changes will mean to the Medicaid budget each year.

Pennsylvania, like other states, has to begin taking action to bring social services spending under control. Money spent on Medicaid is money not spent on schools – something to keep in mind as Warren County considers further drastic changes to its school district. Money spent on Medicaid is money that can’t be spent on roads, bridges, helping solve the EMS crisis faced by many regions of the state or on development programs that could help create good-paying jobs that could reduce the need for some safety net programs.

Lawmakers must push the Shapiro administration to tackle this issue.

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