Block-Granters Condemn Social Services Block Grant Because It’s a Block Grant

April 14, 2016

The Social Services Block Grant is a case study in the perils of block-granting — and imperiled again by House Republicans for the same reasons they give for replicating its key features.

SSBG has provided states and the District of Columbia with predetermined portions of the total block grant since 1981, when it replaced a multi-purpose program that ensured them as much funding as the services they provided cost.

In exchange, they got a lot of flexibility. Basically, they could use SSBG funds for, as its name suggests, virtually any mix of social services so long as they met at least one of five general goals.

States must report, in a general way, how they plan to allocate their funds and, at the end of the year, how they actually have. That’s about it, except when committees or subcommittees in Congress decide to find out more — or to prove they can’t.

Funding for the block grant doesn’t altogether depend on choices Congress makes from year to year. It’s one of the so-called mandatory programs. But unlike some others, e.g., Medicaid, SNAP (the food stamp program), its funding doesn’t hinge on how much states need to cover benefits for everyone enrolled.

Congress instead appropriates funding up to a cap set by the law that authorizes spending on the program. The cap has remained $1.7 billion since 2001. The total SSBG gets is then parceled out according to a formula based on the relative size of each state’s population.

The real-dollar value of the total pie has dropped somewhat since 2010, the year before Congress passed the law requiring sequestration. Pieces of the pie have shrunk accordingly.

The block grant’s losses don’t stem entirely from sequestration, however, but rather from the fact that it’s a block grant.

On the one hand, it’s so very flexible that Congress felt free to tap it when it needed funds for something else — hence the current cap, which is less than two-thirds of what it got before the first tap.

On the other hand, Congress has made no adjustment to accommodate inflation, though that inevitably drives up service costs. Nor has it adjusted for population growth.

All these together have caused the block grant to lose a whopping 81% of its real-dollar value since created.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, my source for the figure, focuses on the block grant aspect. The marked flexibility in SSBG seems equally important, especially in light of recent threats.

States and the District have used their block grant funds for many purposes. They’ve melded those funds with others — from their share of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant, more targeted federal grants and their own tax revenues.

We see, for example, that states tend to use a relatively large portion of their block grant funds for child care. They’ve got another block grant specifically for that, as well as TANF.

They use SSBG funds for child welfare services — prevention of abuse and neglect, interventions and foster care, when those won’t suffice. But the block grant isn’t the sole funding source.

Nor are children its only beneficiaries. Many states use some SSBG funds to protect vulnerable adults from abuse and neglect and to provide day care and/or home-delivered meals for seniors.

They may also get more targeted federal grants for these. And they may, as I mentioned, add some of their own funds.

The District, for one, has used SSBG funds to shore up its stressed homeless services program — here again, a melding with both a targeted federal grant and its own tax revenues.

In short, states and the District have taken advantage of the flexibility the block grant offers. And they’ve done so in ways that would make it extraordinarily difficult to show how the block grant funds, in and of themselves, made practical differences in the lives of people served.

Lead House Republicans have pounced on the flexibility we see here. They include now-Speaker Paul Ryan, who, as you may recall, would roll as many as eleven safety net programs into a single block grant.

His budget plans would have zeroed out SSBG and replaced it with nothing. The current House Budget Committee majority has used his plans as a blueprint for their own, including the latest. It too would eliminate the block grant — and for the same alleged reasons the Committee’s past reports cited.

A “duplicative” program, since other federal programs fund most of the same activities. The “wide discretion” states have in deciding how to spend the money. No evidence of effectiveness, i.e., outcomes achieved solely by their block grant spending.

And again, those programs that SSBG purportedly duplicates would get no funding to compensate states for the loss of their block grant shares. The Committee majority books the loss to them as savings — $17 billion over the usual 10-year window.

The loss would, of course, be ultimately borne by beneficiaries — “vulnerable kids and … adults,” as the Democratic minority says. The Republicans, it adds, have confirmed long-standing worries that block-granting sets programs up for a death sentence.

Well, as I’ve said before, the House budget plan won’t become the budget for the upcoming fiscal year. But it does show how block-granting programs makes them exceedingly vulnerable — if not to sudden death, then slow starvation.

And if it doesn’t show how hypocritical the calls for yet more state flexibility are, then I don’t know what can.

 


Bowser Budget Shorts Vouchers, Leaves Huge Affordable Housing Gap

April 7, 2016

The National Low Income Housing Coalition reports that the District of Columbia has only 40 apartments affordable and available to rent for every 100 extremely low-income households and only 30 per 100 for the deeply low-income.

ELIs have incomes no greater than 30% of the area median — at most, $32,600 for a four-person family in D.C. For DLIs, the maximum is 15% of that median.

The NLIHC figures actually understate the affordable housing shortage here because the area includes well-off communities beyond the city line. Several years ago, the District’s own median was 23% lower.

Even so, clearly a yawning “housing gap” — a shortage of more than 30,600 units two years ago, when the Census Bureau conducted the survey NLIHC used.

It helps explain why nearly two-thirds of the District’s ELI households and nearly three-quarters of the DLI subset had to spend more than half their income for rent, plus utilities — commonly (and aptly) referred to as a severe housing burden.

The gap also, of course, helps explain why the District had so many homeless individuals and families — and still does, though we’ll have to wait a bit for new hard numbers.

The report confirms what everyone has known for a long time. The District sorely needs more housing that’s affordable for its lowest-income residents. And the District government must invest local tax dollars to create it — and preserve what remains.

The Mayor’s budget includes another $100 million for the Housing Production Trust Fund, which helps finance both construction and preservation, though not exclusively for ELIs and DLIs.

But developers can’t afford to build or renovate housing for them without an ongoing source of funds to help pay operating costs. That’s why the District also needs enough housing vouchers of the sort that’s attached to specific units — so-called project-based vouchers.

At the same time, it needs more tenant-based vouchers — those that make up the difference between what low-income people can afford and the market-rate rent of units landlords will lease to them.

Don’t look to the federal government to fund more vouchers. The current budget at best barely sustains those already in use. And the District hasn’t gotten anything like the number of vouchers it needs for many years.

That’s why its policymakers created the Local Rent Supplement Program — a source of vouchers modeled on the federal.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute has raised concerns about proposed funding for LRSP in next year’s budget. There’d be only enough more to provide affordable housing for some 200 formerly homeless individuals and families, it says.

These would be tenant-based vouchers. They would replace some of the short-term vouchers individuals and families have through rapid re-housing and/or enable either or both to move from permanent supportive housing because they no longer need such intensive services.

The Mayor proposes no additional funds for the project-based type. How then could the Production Trust Fund actually produce more affordable housing for ELI residents — let alone the subcategory NLIHC has created?

The Fund, by law, is supposed to spend 40% on ELI housing every year. It hasn’t always in the past. But the head of the Housing and Economic Development Department said she’d ensure it did. And the latest awards seem to confirm that.

But developers may not respond to all the new opportunities the Fund will create if the Bowser administration can’t assure them of the ongoing subsidies project-based vouchers provide.

This isn’t the only problem with the significantly smaller LRSP increase the Mayor proposes. If all the tenant-based vouchers go to residents in rapid re-housing and/or PSH, there’ll be none for the ELIs and DLIs with housing burdens that put them at high risk of homelessness.

NPR recently profiled a single mother who’d just narrowly escaped eviction, but can’t rest easy because her monthly rent is about $335 more than what her job pays.

She knows that she should move the family to a more affordable place. but even the no-bedroom apartments she’s found rent for barely less than what she makes.

She applied for a housing voucher eight years ago. The family is now “1,000 something” on the DC Housing Authority’s waiting list, she says. There are about 40,000 families behind her. And there would be more if DCHA hadn’t closed the list three years ago.

The problem NLIHC documents is hardly unique to the District. The shortages it documents are actually larger nationwide, as are the severe housing burdens. We can, I think chalk this up partly to investments of local funds.

But that’s hardly a source of comfort to District families who can barely come up with the monthly rent and money for the electricity bill — or who can’t, but manage to stay housed, heated and the like by putting off first one and then the other.

These families are obviously one loss of working hours or other new strain on their budgets away from homelessness — or just one more late rent payment.

The District may rapidly re-house them. But few will be able to pay full rent when their short-term subsidies expire — or find an apartment they can afford. And the proposed budget would by no means fund LRSP vouchers for all that will need them to remain securely housed.

The Mayor has embraced the goal of making homelessness a rare, brief, one-time experience in the District. So it’s perplexing to see that she’s proposing a smaller real-dollar increase for LRSP than budgeted in any recent year but one.

Not much of the “fair shot” her budget promises for those residents on the waiting list and the severely housing-burdened who aren’t because they couldn’t apply.

 


DC Mayor Leaves TANF Families Dangling Near Bottom of a Cliff

March 28, 2016

Mayor Bowser said, in her State of the District address, that she would ask the DC Council to raise the local minimum wage to $15 an hour. She wants to “make sure that more families … can earn a decent wage … [s]o that when their time on TANF has ended, they can afford to stay in the District of Columbia.”

Meanwhile, a reform of some sort “will keep families working their plans from falling off a cliff.” This, I take it, refers to families headed by parents who are putting in the required number of hours on their required work preparation and/or job search activities.

The Mayor’s proposed budget quashes whatever hope her speech raised. It would, once again, just push back the benefits cut-off for families who’ve participated in TANF for 60 months or more.

Better than pushing them out of the program six months from now. But they’d still receive only the drastically lower cash aid intended to lead up to the cut-off — perhaps with a very small adjustment to compensate for inflation.

A family of three now receives $156 a month — $1.71 per person, per day. Seems to me they’re already pretty near the bottom of that cliff.

One could understand the cut-off delay if the notion of extending benefits indefinitely for some at-risk families were altogether new such that experts in the Human Services Department had to start developing a proposal from scratch.

If they had no precedents in other states to look at, instead of those in forty-four. If the notion of preserving benefits for all the 13,600 or so children who’d get only a temporary reprieve had never crossed the Mayor’s radar screen before.

If no research had found that children in extreme poverty suffer irreparable damages that put them at extremely high risk for a lifetime of poverty.

The Mayor knows, as do many of you, that the Council already has a pending bill that would qualify families for extensions if cutting off their TANF benefits would leave them penniless — or in less dire cases, short of enough wage income to cover their basic needs.

The same bill would extend a lifeline to all children, even those whose parents didn’t qualify. And it would restore the cash benefits they and reprieved parents would receive if not up against the time limit.

That’s hardly enough to live on, even with other safety net benefits, but a whole lot better than what the Mayor intends. Our family of three would have $288 more a month — and could look forward to an increase next year, if still not earning enough to boost it over the income cut-off.

Strengthening the safety net, as the bill proposes, would cost roughly $30 million during the upcoming year — $20 million more than the Mayor’s kick-the-can-down-the-road-again approach.

She chooses instead to give more than half the total to businesses through another cut in the franchise tax and to the beneficiaries of estates, which would have no tax levied until the value, after deductions exceeded $2 million.*

The Council triggered these tax cuts — and possibly others — in its latest budget-related legislation, but she could have asked it to defer them.

I have nothing like the expertise to say where else Bowser and her budget experts could have found the funds needed for the TANF extensions. But they’re surely somewhere in that $13.4 billion budget.

I realize I’m not giving the Mayor credit for a number of fine budget proposals — $13.1 million to move the plan to end homelessness forward, for example, another $100 million commitment to help finance construction and/or preservation of affordable housing, further investments in public education. And so on.

But I can’t get over her decision to leave nearly 6,600 poor families hanging by a thread when she has such a clear, justifiable alternative. And I don’t think Councilmembers should go along when they could, at least in this respect, make the budget live up to its billing as “a fair shot.”

* Current law exempts assets that pass directly to surviving spouses and/or charitable organizations. So the larger tax break wouldn’t benefit them. It would benefit other heirs if either or both received some of the assets because the taxable value doesn’t include them.

UPDATE: I’ve just seen the Chief Financial Officer’s (unpublished) cost estimate for the short-term reprieve. He puts it at $11.6 million, based on an estimated 6,200 families and no cost-of-living adjustment, as I had thought there might be.


What’s New (and Not) in the House Budget Committee Plan

March 24, 2016

I feel sorry for progressive analysts and advocates whose main business is the federal budget and related issues because they again have to swat down pernicious proposals and misleading justifications.

I myself am tired of blogging on the retreads we see in the proposed House budget resolution — the immediate occasion of my pity and exasperation that I suspect is shared.

So what’s new? A few things that would devastate programs for low-income people, as well as some not new.

Vast Spending Cuts

The Washington Post has repeatedly reported that the House budget plan would cut spending by $30 billion over two years to offset what last year’s budget deal allows above the caps originally set for the upcoming fiscal year.

This is doubly misleading, though not, I think, intentionally. First off, the deal has already offset that $30 billion, though the savings reach the total over a longer period of time. Second, the plan would actually cut spending by $6.5 trillion during the next 10 years, the usual window for budget-related estimates.

The massive cut isn’t new. Nor the justification for it. The plan, like its recent predecessors aims to balance the federal budget, without raising more revenues.

It would, in fact, raise less than likely now because it would eliminate taxes on all profits corporations claim to earn overseas and the Alternative Minimum Tax collected from well-off individual filers who benefit from the lower capital gains tax rate, plus diverse deductions and credits.

Where the “Savings” Would Come From

The House Budget Committee finds roughly a sixth of its savings in discretionary programs, i.e., those that depend on annual appropriations. Most are subject to the caps, while only a few others are.

The plan provides for spending up to the somewhat higher caps agreed to for the upcoming fiscal year. But it doubles down in the years following, while boosting spending on defense even more than the budget tables show.

Spending on non-defense discretionary programs would fall by about $1 trillion below the current caps, according to a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimate.

These programs include a wide variety that serve low-income people’s immediate needs, e.g., affordable housing and child care, help with home heating bills. Others offer them or their children opportunities to improve their earnings prospects, e.g., job training, work-study for college students.

Most have already lost real-dollar value since the year before Congress passed the law that imposed the caps, as the Coalition on Human Needs shows.

A much bigger chunk of the savings would come from changes in mandatory programs, i.e., those the federal government must spend enough on to provide full benefits authorized by laws other than a budget.

What’s not new is a sketch of sorts for partially privatizing Medicare. Likewise proposals to convert Medicaid and SNAP (the food stamp program) to block grants.

The former would reduce federal spending by more than $1 trillion, the latter by $125 billion — nearly a third during the block grant’s first four years. Another $25 billion or so saved by not-new proposals House Republicans tried to get into the latest version of the Farm Bill.

The block-granting impacts are self-evident, as they’ve always been. Either states would have to use significantly more of their own funds to sustain the same benefits to the same groups now eligible or they’d have to cut benefits, deny them to some or a combination of both.

What’s sort of new is the re-branding. The undermined programs wouldn’t be block grants, but rather state flexibility funds, the more palatable term the House Budget Committee adopted last year.

I’ll have more to say about the Committee’s plans for healthcare programs because the not-new proposal to repeal the Affordable Care Act and a separate effort to undermine it pose broader threats than the block grant in and of itself.

I’ll just cut to the chase here in hopes of answering a question I’m guessing is on the minds of those of you still reading what seems the same old, same old with new numbers.

Why Worth a Worry

The House Budget Committee’s plan won’t develop into next year’s budget — or the many legislative changes needed to gut the mandatory programs. It may not even pass in the House because some of the Tea Partiers feel it doesn’t cut spending enough.

If it does pass, it won’t in the Senate, even if all Republicans there vote for it because they’d need at least six Democrats to join them. Lotsa luck there.

Yet I think the analysts and advocates I pity are right to not just shrug off the plan as a waste of their energies and time. Set aside, if we can, the upcoming elections.

When state flexibility funds, attacks on the ACA and other radical spending cuts resurface year after year, they become familiar in a way that doesn’t breed contempt. They gain a sort of tolerance — as negotiable perhaps or at least due the deference we generally accord debatable propositions.

Not saying all is right with all the programs the federal government funds. But the notion that it should leave the well-being of low-income and other disadvantaged Americans to the states they live in — and whatever those states can and choose to spend — seems to me fundamentally wrong.

This is not a notion that should cease to shock just because it’s teed up year after year, with new wrinkles and rhetorical flourishes.

All told, the House budget plan would cut spending on programs for low-income people by $3.5 trillion over the next 10 years — about 40% of what’s spent now or nearly one and a half times their share of non-defense spending.

And that should shock as much as the House Republican majority’s first budget plan — the ironically entitled Path to Prosperity — did.

 

 

 


What DC Taxpayer Dollars Could Buy for Poor Residents

February 29, 2016

I note here, somewhat belatedly, that the Fair Budget Coalition has published its recommendations for the District of Columbia’s next budget.

It settled on nineteen of them — a heterogeneous collection, reflecting the primary interests and priorities of the working groups that initiated them.

I’ve blogged on some already — shelter for newly homeless families year round, for example, and the automatic tax cuts, along with the seemingly, though not technically automatic tax abatements.

As followers know, I’ve also blogged — some might say flogged — the need to the replace rigid time limit for families in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, e.g., here, here and here.

I may delve into others. At this point, however, I want to say a few words about the preface that’s intended to give readers a way to view the recommendations as a coherent whole.

We — and perhaps more importantly, the Mayor and DC Councilmembers — are invited to think of them as measures to increase public safety.

This, of course cleverly pings a concern that recent episodes of violence have fueled — and not only in poor neighborhoods, where residents have long-standing, well-founded fears of bodily harm (or worse) to themselves and their children.

It also pings the Mayor’s response — not approvingly, I hasten to add. The authors apparently view the ramped-up police presence in troubled neighborhoods and get-tough measures as “punitive” — particularly against blacks.

They do, however, build their framework on Police Chief Lanier’s own vision for public safety. “The goal,” she said, “should be to put us [the police force] out of business. The goal should be having investments before someone gets into the system” — specifically, “more investments in social services.”

Lanier calls for these investments because they’d prevent crime and thus help ensure public safety as we ordinarily understand it. The frame broadens the concept.

Safety may nevertheless seem a somewhat limited vision for our public policies — budgets included, of course. The recommendations themselves reach beyond safety from hunger, homelessness, lack of affordable health care and of money for other basic needs.

We see, for example, an understandably somewhat fuzzy recommendation for a “strong plan” to comply with the new federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, including provisions for adult education.

Becoming proficient in a skill set employers seek and will pay decent wages for does, of course, help keep residents and their families safe from the everyday deprivations of poverty.

And it offers a modicum of safety from the related stresses — scrambling to stretch SNAP (food stamp) benefits for a month, find a friend or family member to stay with, someone who’ll watch the kids because the work schedule has suddenly changed.

Relief from such stresses provides more safety from mental and physical health problems — and as we know, from spillover damages to children that last even if stress in the home later subsides.

But a well-structured program, like what WIOA envisions, puts participants on a pathway to jobs that involve increasingly higher skills, responsibilities and pay.

There’s some safety from financial insecurity here, though no one can feel altogether secure in a job, of course. But employment that calls forth strengths joined with those of others and to some productive end fosters a sense of inclusion — both in the workplace and in our society as a whole.

Providing for one’s self and one’s family this way fosters a healthful self-esteem and sense of well-being too — and hope, if one foresees better opportunities ahead. That’s what a realistic, well-mapped pathway provides.

Other programs FBC expressly supports would also afford some security, as well as safety. Funding to repair public housing, for example, would not only keep occupants safe from mold, mouse bites, blasts of freezing air through broken windows, etc.

It would also give them some assurance they’d have a place to live with neighbors they know and have formed bonds with. And if their housing were then truly decent, it would preserve or restore their sense of dignity and inclusion in the community, as the DC Legal Aid Society says.

One could say something of the same for more locally-funded housing vouchers — the kind that individuals and families can have unless and until their income rises to the point they can afford to pay rent on their own. Likewise the kind that enables developers to afford the costs of operating housing that’s affordable for the District’s lowest-income residents.

What I’m trying to get at here is that investments like those FBC recommends do more than provide a safety net of some specific sort. They extend to poor and near-poor residents intangibles we value in our own lives.

“We are talking about people,” as one comfortably-housed resident said at a heated meeting on the Mayor’s family shelter plan. There’s a message here that’s deeper and far broader than the intended rebuke to unneighborly neighbors.

Something to do with cost-benefit calculations beyond what any budget analyst could produce.


Hope for Bipartisan Reform of the EITC for “Childless” Workers?

February 25, 2016

Far be it from me to discount bipartisanship. It would be nice to see some at the federal level — on issues that would help poor and near-poor people, among others.

But I’m not as hopeful as some kindred spirits that proposals in the President’s budget could get Republican leaders in Congress on board — notably House Speaker Paul Ryan.

He’s floated a plan for “expanding opportunity in America” — specifically, for Americans stuck on the bottom rung of the income ladder. It proposes, among other things, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit for childless workers.

The hopefuls see a chance for bipartisanship here. And perhaps there is. Conservatives, after all, want low-income people to work. And the EITC is said to reward work because it provides a tax credit for some variable amount of income earned by working.

It doesn’t, however, truly reward work for childless wage earners. Nor for those who have children, but not living with them for most of the year. Nor for young workers, childless or otherwise.

Together, they’re the only group our federal system taxes into poverty or — and more often — deeper poverty, as a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis shows.

How the EITC Works

The EITC reduces what many, but not all workers owe in income taxes. If they owe less than zero when they claim the credit, they get a refund.

For all eligible workers, the credit kicks in with the first dollar earned. It then rises by a set percent of earnings until a reaches a certain dollar value, cruises there for awhile and then declines, by a set percent, until it reaches zero.

Both the percents and the maximum dollar value depend on whether the filer has children in the home and, if so, how many. The tax structure also favors married couples over singles, but only in the phase-out if they’re childless.

The maximum credit for both is a mere $506. And singles get no credit at all when their countable income is less than what a full-time, year round job at the federal minimum wage pays.

What the President (Again) Proposes

The President’s proposal would expand the EITC in several ways. First, it would change the minimum and maximum ages for claiming it.

At this point, “childless” workers don’t become eligible until they’re 25 years old. And they lose eligibility when they’re over 64, even though many remain in the workforce longer, if they can — especially now that they can no longer get full Social Security retirement benefits until they’re older.

The President would make the eligible age range 21 to 67, the age when workers born in 1960 or thereafter will reach Social Security’s full retirement age — unless forces for so-called entitlement reform succeed in boosting it again.

He would also double the phase-in rate, i.e., the percent of earned income that translates into a larger credit. The maximum credit a worker could claim would almost double. And a worker could get it for longer because the phase-out rate would match the phase-in.

About 13.2 million low-income workers would benefit — both those newly eligible and those eligible now.

What Could Stymie Bipartisan Reform

The structure Ryan proposes for “childless” workers mirrors the President’s. And he too would drop the minimum eligibility age to 21. He’d leave the maximum age the same, but that seems readily negotiable.

What won’t be is the pay-for, i.e., the offsets that will prevent the losses in tax revenues from increasing the deficit.

The new proposed budget doesn’t say specifically what other proposal(s) would offset the losses. We do, however, see various tax reforms that would more than offset them, as well as help pay for direct spending initiatives.

In fact, closing just one tax loophole high-earning individuals can — and apparently do — use to legally game the system would raise more than four times the cost of the expansion. The President’s economists cited this loophole-closer as an EITC expansion pay-for last year.

Ryan’s opportunity plan specifies pay-fors too — all spending cuts. He expressly rejects raising taxes — even, one infers, by closing unintended loopholes.

He’d eliminate what he calls — perhaps rightly, in some cases — instances of “corporate welfare.” But he’d pay for the EITC expansion mainly by ending “programs that don’t work” — and reducing “fraud” in the refundable part of the Child Tax Credit.

Programs he’d eliminate include the Social Services Block Grant and two small programs that aim to get more fresh fruits and vegetables into the diets of young children.

Now, the Social Services Block Grant is challenging to defend with the “hard evidence” Ryan wants — ironically, for reasons that should appeal to him and his Republican colleagues. First off, it’s a block grant — and like most others, under-funded, in part because it’s had no increase for many years.

But the main reason it’s hard to defend — and should appeal — is that it offers states lots of flexibility. So they can invest a bit of money here, a bit there, supplementing their own funds and tapping funds from other federal sources.

How then to prove the effectiveness of SSBG in, for example, providing child care so that parents can work, reducing senior hunger, protecting children and adults with disabilities from abuse, etc.?

Does this mean the program doesn’t work? Of course, not. Nor would what Ryan proposes for the Child Tax Credit prevent costly fraud.

It’s instead what’s sadly familiar by now — requiring parents who claim it to have Social Security numbers. This would deny refunds to low-income undocumented workers — and indirectly, their children, most of whom are U.S. citizens, as if that should matter to someone who professes concern for poverty in America.

Why Bipartisan Reform Only Doubtful, Not Hopeless

It’s not only the specific offsets Ryan proposes, but his whole approach that casts doubt on a bipartisan bill — and subsequent vote — to make work pay for so-called childless adults.

But who knows? A majority of House Republicans and enough in the Senate did agree to a budget deal that converted the time-limited EITC and Child Tax Credit improvements in the Recovery Act to permanent law.

Give them enough of what they want, swallow enough of what you don’t but can live with and we could have a fairer EITC. A lower poverty rate too. Hopes, needless to say, contingent on the results of the upcoming elections.


President Has Bold, New Plans for Homeless and At-Risk Families

February 16, 2016

The Obama administration has turned its attention to family homelessness — a big problem even now, years after the recession officially ended. We find the focus in the President’s proposed budget — and not only in the groundbreaking investment the White House overview flags.

We could, of course, find it in all sorts of places, especially if we took a long-range view. We see, for example, diverse investments that will enable current and future workers to qualify for higher paying jobs.

But I’ll confine myself here to a handful of proposals that would house homeless families and prevent some from losing their homes. A partial summary even so.

Assistance for Homeless Families

The proposed budget would dedicate $11 billion over 10 years to housing assistance earmarked for homeless families. An estimated 80% would fund Housing Choice vouchers — those that families can generally have so long as their incomes don’t rise above 30% of the median for the area they live in.

The other 20% would support rapid re-housing, which generally subsidizes housing for a year or less, plus services intended to enable families to then pay the full costs.

The budget for the upcoming year would essentially make a down payment, providing funds for 10,000 new vouchers for families with children and 8,000 more units to rapidly re-house others.

An interesting policy shift here, since the federal Interagency Council on Homelessness has tilted toward rapid re-housing as the tool for ending family homelessness.

We can, I think, credit the shift to the findings of a recently-completed study conducted for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The White House summary, in fact, suggests as much.

Shift in Budget Too

The homeless family piece of the proposed budget is notable for another reason. The $11 billion would be so-called mandatory spending. In other words, the federal government would have the authority to make the investment unless Congress changed or repealed it.

Up to this point, homeless assistance, vouchers and other such programs have depended on discretionary spending, i.e., the choices Congress annually makes. This would still be true for the down payment.

But the larger shift to the mandatory side will permit further investments without effectively taking funds from other non-defense programs, as they would if they added to discretionary spending, which the Budget Control Act caps.

Though subsequent deals temporarily eased the caps, public housing authorities are still shy roughly 67,000 housing vouchers lost due to the across-the-board cuts the BCA required for 2013.

Mandatory funding at the proposed level would provide 20,000 new vouchers a year, a HUD director told those of us on a budget briefing call. The Secretary put the total number of families housed at 550,000 during an in-person briefing.

And they’d be secure from the vagaries of annual spending choices.

Short-Shot Homelessness Prevention

Not all families need ongoing assistance to cover their housing costs, of course. Some can remain housed if they merely get a swift infusion of cash or the equivalent — enough, for example, to repair a car needed to get to work or to defray lost wages when an injury sidelines the breadwinner.

The President proposes $2 billion for grants to test ways of providing emergency aid and services. This too is a sort of down payment because the aim is to learn what works best — and so pave the way for a future initiative.

This isn’t the only preventive measure the President proposes. We find also two for insurance. One would tackle state restrictions on unemployment insurance benefits that left barely more than a quarter of laid-off workers with any wage replacement in 2014.

The other measure would create a wage insurance program for workers who lose their jobs and have to settle for one paying less. They’d get half the wages they lost for two years, though no more than $10,000 total. Still, a bit of a cushion for families while they try to adjust.

More Hope Than Change?

Republican House leaders bashed the proposed budget before they even saw it. “[A] progressive manual for growing the federal government at the expense of hardworking Americans,” Speaker Paul Ryan opined.

That doesn’t mean it’s altogether irrelevant, however. For one thing, it presents reasonable solutions to problems that affect hardworking Americans, as well as those who can’t work — homeless children, for example.

How many of them is anybody’s guess. We do know, however, that the latest reported one-night count found nearly 128,000 who met HUD’s restrictive definition of “homeless.” That’s a lot of kids to shrug off as just cost items in a left-wing agenda.

The proposed budget is also relevant because its homeless family initiatives — and many others that would benefit lower-income people — don’t drive up the deficit. On the contrary. The projected deficit would drop by $2.9 trillion over the next 10 years.

I can’t account specifically for the budget changes that would pay for the President’s initiatives. I do note, however, a suite of tax reforms that would raise more revenues from corporations and well-off individuals.

Doubt Congressional Republicans will accept the pay-fors to give homeless families a modicum of security — or in other ways, help poor and near-poor people, as the President proposes.

But the offsets show what’s possible within tight fiscal constraints. And they could be back on the table, a hopeful budget expert has suggested. A lotta hope there. but who knows?

Better to let hope fuel our efforts, as it has at the White House, than to leave change to “the worst,” who surely are “full of passionate intensity” these days.

UPDATE: Due to a typographical error, this post originally understated the estimated number of families that would have housing vouchers. I have corrected the figure.

 


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