Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation explains for National Review Online readers why a proposal to scale back the federal food-stamp program is not the devastating cut described by left-of-center activists.

Each month, one out of every three Americans receives aid from at least one of these anti-poverty programs. Overall spending comes to around $9,000 per recipient per year. Over the next decade, government will spend around $12.7 trillion on these programs. In that context, the proposed cuts in the food-stamp program are barely a rounding error.

This spending represents the hidden welfare state, because most policymakers and citizens are unaware of its existence. The Heritage Foundation long has promoted two principles for reforming this behemoth.

First, reformers should frame the debate by discussing welfare as a whole. They should consistently point to all 80-plus welfare programs together, and to the resulting $916 billion in aggregate spending. This framing would overturn the status quo in welfare. Habitually, welfare is debated one program at a time. This piecemeal approach enables the Left to depict the welfare state as pathetically small and to pretend that the particular program under review is the lone, frail reed standing between the poor and starvation. By contrast, the Left has considerable difficulty defending the $916 billion price tag or explaining why this ever-climbing sum can never be rolled back.

Second, reformers should call for the moral transformation of welfare. These programs should not be one-way handouts. Instead, they ought to be based on a reciprocal obligation between taxpayers and recipients. Those in need of aid should receive assistance; in return, they should take steps toward supporting themselves. This principle was the foundation of welfare reform in 1996. The main problem was that we reformed only one anti-poverty program out of 80.

Americans overwhelmingly agree with this principle of reciprocal obligation. More than 95 percent, according to a Heritage survey, agree that “able-bodied adults that receive cash, food, housing and medical assistance should be required to work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving those government benefits.” In fact, over 95 percent of self-identified Democrats agree with this.