Congressman Paul Ryan took up the cause of anti-poverty policy reform not long after his bid to become Vice President failed. He visited local programs, accompanied (and probably selected) by the ultra-conservative founder and president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.
He issued a big — and hardly objective — review of federal programs attributed to the War on Poverty. He held five hearings purportedly designed to help lay the groundwork for a new and better approach.
And last Thursday, he finally announced some proposals at an event hosted by the right-leaning — but not radically right-wing — American Enterprise Institute.
The big headliner should come as no surprise to anyone who’s even casually familiar with his persistent celebrations of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and/or his annual budget plans.
He wants to create a block grant. It’s not “a garden variety block grant,” he says, because states would have to meet certain requirements. But if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck ….
And if our experience with eminently-flexible block grants tells us anything, it portends trouble for low-income people.
The proposed Opportunity Grant would initially be a pilot. States could submit plans to consolidate 11 diverse safety net programs, e.g., SNAP (the food stamp program), several forms of housing assistance, TANF, the block grants for child care and community development.
States would get the same total amount of funding they’re entitled to now. If another recession or a natural disaster put more people at risk of hunger, they could, if they chose, put more money into SNAP, but only by reducing other types of assistance.
Ryan’s formal proposal says that some counter-cyclical component might be added to boost assistance during recessions. It might not be more funding, however, but instead a requirement that states set aside some of the money they receive in a sort of rainy day fund.
But if food, housing, home energy and other costs rise, as they surely will, the participating states will get squeezed, just as they’ve been squeezed by the flat-funded TANF block grant — and, like as not, with similar results.
States would have to spend the funds on “people in need.” Aid would have to go first, but not exclusively to people living below the poverty line.
States would not, however, have to sustain their own spending levels on safety net programs. As Bob Greenstein, President of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, warns, they would have “tantalizing opportunities” to use their block grant funds instead — as in fact, they have with their federal TANF funds.
States would have to see to it that everyone who can work does — or engages in preparation for work. This will require significant expenditures because states currently don’t have job training programs big enough to enroll everyone whose benefits would hinge on their participation.
They would also have to commit funds to expanding their networks of service providers. And they would have to give folks their choice of providers.
Whatever their choice, they’d get a single caseworker to help them develop an “opportunity plan,” oversee compliance and dole out sanctions. Bonuses too perhaps. The caseworker would apparently also dole out benefits, based on some sort of needs assessment.
This could mean a smaller (or no) SNAP benefit in exchange for, say, a low-cost car loan. Or it could mean a whole battery of benefits and services for some people in need and nothing — or much less — for others. “Fundamental math,” as CBPP’s top-level TANF expert says.
And where are the states going to get all those additional caseworkers? Here again we see less money available for programs that help meet people’s basic needs, she says elsewhere. Less perhaps for job training and other services as well.
Lastly, states would have to engage an independent entity to evaluate success according to outcomes identified in their plans. Success here is moving “people out of poverty and into independence.”
But a key measure for providers would be how many people “they help move off welfare.” This, as TANF has taught us, leads to a “work first” approach, i.e., one that requires participants to take any job they can get as soon as they can get it. Legal Momentum reports the dismal results.
In short, the OG pilot is for all the world like TANF on steroids, though with some accommodation for elderly and disabled people.
And to what end? The integrated, innovative, localized approaches Ryan says will be gained by getting “the federal bureaucracy” out of the way are already possible, as the state-level initiative that CLASP and partners are supporting shows. Likewise the Catholic Charities programs he praises.
The pilot is only one of the proposals Ryan tees up to “make federal aid both more effective and more accountable.” Some have — and could gain further — bipartisan support. Some, one hopes, not.
For example, Ryan proposes other block grants — one for Head Start, which he still insists in an utter failure, and two for the various federal funding streams that flow to public elementary and secondary education programs.
I felt as if I were suddenly transported back to the early days of the Reagan administration.
Well, Ryan claims that he’s just trying to start a conversation, as he also did when he launched his hearings. My own sense is that we should begin by talking about how these various proposals for “expanding opportunity in America,” as he styles them, comport with his budget plans.
The latest, for example, would cut SNAP spending by $137 billion over the next 10 years. And, as the Coalition on Human Needs notes, other programs that could be rolled into the “super-block grant” are in the part of the budget that Ryan’s plan would cut by about twice as much as sequestration requires.
“My work on poverty is a separate thing,” he’s said. Tell that to the families that are running out of food because their SNAP benefits were cut — or the parents of the more than 5.6 million preschoolers who are eligible for federally-subsidized child care, but can’t get it.