Reducing entitlement spending and eliminating what Republican Vice Presidential Candidate Paul Ryan calls the “dependency culture” is a big 2012 election issue. President Barack Obama and Republican Challenger Mitt Romney hold diametrically opposite views on how to pay for the nation’s welfare programs. In the interest of reducing the deficit, Romney wants deep cuts that would gut many of them. President Obama wants to spend more to help those hit hard by the recession.

Neither view is practical or realistic.

They and politicians in general are not thinking about the big picture. It’s not just about cutting ‘Big Bird’ and Food Stamps, it’s about fixing government. Making it more efficient; eliminating the redundancies that have bloated it to record size.

Last year, the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) March 2011 Report to Congress: Opportunities to Reduce Potential Duplication in Government Programs, Save Tax Dollars, and Enhance Revenue made a strong case for taking a ‘big picture’ approach. Their analysis indicated that there are hundreds of programs spread across multiple agencies ripe for reorganization.

For example, the Department of Defense spends billions each year on purchasing two similar mine-resistant vehicles. There are over 80 duplicate economic development programs offered by Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, the Small Business Administration, and the USDA.

The Veterans Administration inefficiently pays $11 billion a year on unrestrained pharmacy costs, and the Internal Revenue Service loses $350 billion a year because of tax evasion. None of these problems came up during the debates. Neither the President nor Mitt Romney offer substantive plans to deal with them.

One of the most vehemently attacked programs is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps. SNAP provides nutrition assistance to the nation’s poor, disabled and elderly citizens. Forty-seven million people receive Food Stamps, and that cost taxpayers $76 billion. SNAP is inefficient. It’s made up of 18 independent, overlapping, and redundant programs. All have cumbersome application requirements that put heavy administrative burdens on state agencies tasked with managing them. By streamlining SNAP, the government could save $18 billion, and, if it instituted better fraud controls, another $7.6 billion per year.       

Straight cuts, like the $33 billion Rep. Paul Ryan has proposed in his Roadmap for America’s Future plan last year, however, is not the best way to go. Yes, it cuts how much taxpayers have to pay to fund SNAP, but it doesn’t make the program cost-effective. Not to mention, if we cut the food stamp budget just because of politics, there will be blowback. Angry people will be forced into deeper desperation because they don’t have a lifeline to help them get through the recession. It’s time for a balanced, reasoned approach for spending reduction.

Citizens must push their representatives to think bigger; take the GAO recommendations seriously, and compel Congress to pass laws that optimize government. This route will be much kinder to the poor, maintain military readiness than straightforward cuts that do nothing more than to put a band-aid on a long-term problem. 

Jamie Chandler is a political scientist at Hunter College and a political columnist and commentator for several national media outlets. 

Jared Canfield is a television producer and non fiction writer living in New York City.