Numbers tell the government story, sort of

Sometimes the federal government seems like a kaleidoscope of numbers when it comes to its budgeting.

Clarification: Column has been updated to clarify that GoodWeave International’s contract is separate from the contract for the cold storage facility. Also it has been updated to include a comment from GoodWeave.

Even by federal government standards, $10 billion or $12 billion is real money. To wit:

Congress has shut down the government over a $10 billion disagreement.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s budget peaked during the Obama administration at $10 billion. The Internal Revenue Service will cost around $11 billion this year.

The Defense Department will likely get about $11 billion in 2018 to buy F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.

The Homeland Security and Treasury departments will spend about $11 billion on IT in 2018.

You get the idea. $10 billion, more or less, does and buys real stuff.

This is why I stopped and looked twice at a routine table issued by the Agriculture Department last week.  Specifically, the Food and Nutrition Service.

In 2017, its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program served 42 million people for a cost of $58 billion. In 2014, 46.6 million people enrolled, costing $70 billion. The numbers fell each of the last four years. That means they fell steadily in the final years of the Obama administration. And kept falling during the first year of the Trump administration.

Similar trends occurred in the Women, Infants and Children program. WIC enrollments peaked in 2010 at  nearly 9.2 million.

These numbers can be hard to interpret. Many states fiddle with their SNAP eligibility programs. But consider that  enrollment peaked in recessionary 2009. It’s likely an improving economy has driven the numbers down.

Affordable Care Act signups also show the fluctuating scope of government. About 13 million people signed up for “qualified health policy” insurance plans last year. The numbers are difficult to track and compile. If they’re on the Health and Human Services website, I couldn’t find them. My source is

So far in the current signup, 11.6 million have enrolled. But some big states have yet to conclude their enrollment periods. The group consists of Colorado, Minnesota, Washington, Massachusetts, California, New York and D.C.

But we know the rough number of annual signups fluctuates within a band.

Much has been made of the fact that signups are fairly strong against some headwinds from the Trump administration. It shortened the enrollment period and cut advertising. If you oppose the administration, you say, “Aha, he couldn’t kill it!” If you oppose the ACA, you say, “Darn, he couldn’t kill it!”

Charles Gaba of says 10 percent of enrollees will fail to pay their first premium.

If food stamp numbers reflect the economy, what do ACA numbers reflect? They show a steady demand for these health insurance policies. Before the ACA, the oft-cited number of uninsured people was 30 million. What we don’t know is how many family members each current signup reaches. It all makes measuring the success or effectiveness of the ACA problematic.

Numbers can summarize, but they don’t give faces to the 40-some million people  receiving food assistance.

At Defense Department scale, $675 million is relatively small.  But it mattered enough to merit an 87-page report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. It’s the amount SIGAR found DoD mostly wasted. It cites poor project planning, contracting and oversight. Poor record-keeping didn’t help.

DoD’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations may have had great intentions. But at best, SIGAR says it had mixed results over the last decade.

The report  describes some big examples. The task force set aside $51 million for international mining contracts. But it apparently misjudged subtleties of the Afghanistan government. Ministers never signed off on the contracts for vague “political concerns.”

Some small examples seem almost heartbreaking. The task force paid $442,825 to GoodWeave International but got little for it. The contract was aimed at reducing child labor in carpet-making. (A Goodweave spokesperson says company has completed more than 2,000 inspections at more than 130- work sites, including individual homes, in Afghanistan.) In another case, $435,504 went for a pomegranate cold storage facility that seems to have never been built.

Some projects worked out. U.S. Geological Survey and contractors built a minerals data collection and Afghan Geological Survey Capacity building for $27.9 million. A vocational training center for women was established for $1.1 million. But a $2.3 million cashmere goat farm failed.

Cashmere wool production didn’t start in Afghanistan. But USAID has been there since 2007 trying to spur an Afghan goat hair industry.

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