I nearly missed perhaps the most important chart of the 2015 legislative session.
Most others did, ignoring or glossing over an inconvenient and unfortunate truth: We, as a state, are failing.
Monday morning in the legislative budget committee, Department of Health and Welfare officials showed an amazing chart depicting Idaho’s climb to welfare state status.
I’ve included the chart below, but here are the gloomy numbers: Since fiscal year 2006, Idaho’s welfare use has exploded by 69 percent. In 2014, more than 322,000 Idahoans relied on Medicaid, food stamps, cash assistance, child care or a combination of those programs.
In fiscal year 2006, that number was just about 196,000.
My first instinct as a media figure: Who do I hang this on? Is it Gov. Butch Otter’s fault? Are Idaho lawmakers responsible? How much is the federal government to blame?
After more thought, I came to this: Culpability is far less important than how we evaluate this problem, make changes and move forward.
There is some good news, though. Idaho’s food stamp rolls, traditionally a good way to measure economic health, are shrinking just a bit.
Still, It’s time to get very serious about lifting people from poverty to prosperity.
Idaho has spent millions upon millions since 1996 on worker training programs, handouts for big businesses and other well-intentioned programs to move Idahoans from welfare to work.
While some might argue those program still stimulated growth and made things less bad than they might have been, we need to find ways to do the excellent, not just stave off disaster.
Economist Steve Ackerman, a College of Western Idaho professor and Idaho Freedom Foundation Board of Scholars members, suggests the state de-regulate at least some parts of the economy and pass laws that lure tech ventures to the area.
“Cut taxes to a flat 5 percent for everybody,” the economist prescribed. “You would automatically have a lot of extra cash business owners would put back into their companies.”
“We’ve got to increase our income and develop high-wage jobs,” Ackerman said.
He’s right. There might be other options. I don’t know right now. What's important is that we admit failure and have an honest discussion about the state's path forward.
The answer isn’t, though, expanding Medicaid and adding another 100,000 people to government welfare.
We can do better. I hope, in some small way, highlighting this chart sparks a discussion that leads to positive change.