The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program has been due for reauthorization for two years now. Some members of the House Republican Study Committee have seized on the occasion to propose what they style as the next logical step forward in welfare reform.
It’s nothing of the sort. It’s actually a radical strategy to starve the entire range of programs we call the safety net — plus a covert attack on organized labor, immigrants and, as one might expect, women’s reproductive choices.
The misleadingly-titled Welfare Reform Act would cover all federal programs, except those designed specifically for veterans, that provide cash or equivalent assistance to low-income individuals and families.
In other words, it lumps into the “welfare” category not only TANF, but more than 70 other programs that serve diverse populations and needs — food stamps and free and reduced-price school meals, Medicaid, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Supplemental Security Income for severely disabled people, child care subsidies, housing and home energy assistance, job training and community development programs, Head Start and Title I (the main source of federal funds for public schools) ….
Well, you get the idea.
The Republican Study Committee claims the bill will reverse the course that has led to more Americans living in poverty and increasing dependence on government.
It would do nothing about the former, though it would certainly mean more desperate poverty for millions of Americans. It would, however, decrease dependence on government — as TANF already has — by denying benefits to people who need them.
This bill is so bad in so many ways that I’ll confine myself here to the over-arching framework.
It would impose a cap on total spending for means-tested programs as soon as the unemployment rate drops to 6.5%. The cap would be 2007 spending, with an adjustment for inflation up to the trigger year.
There’d be no further adjustment for inflation. No adjustment for increases in the number of people eligible for any of the programs. No provision for lifting or adjusting the cap when another recession drives the unemployment rate up again.
And no provision for the fact that Medicaid costs will rise faster and more steadily than the Consumer Price Index that would be used to adjust the cap.
They’ll rise faster for the foreseeable future for two reasons. First, because health care costs are ballooning. And second, because many more now-uninsured people will be covered by Medicaid when the health care reform act goes into full gear in 2014.
So inevitably Medicaid squeezes all the other programs. Or the squeeze becomes a justification for converting it into a flat-funded block grant and/or doing away with the health care reform act — assuming that neither of these has happened by the time the cap goes into effect.
RSC Chairman Jim Jordan (R-OH) proclaims that “the most effective welfare benefit is the one that leads to a job.” But many of the programs that would shrink or die under the bill aren’t intended to help people get jobs.
Nor could they.
The bill has new problematic work requirements for adult food stamp recipients who are unemployed or under-employed. Some version of these could arguably move some recipients into somewhat better economic circumstances — though the TANF experience makes one doubt that many would earn enough to live much above the poverty level.
But what about children poor enough to get free school meals? SSI recipients, who can’t qualify for the benefit unless they’re too disabled to work? Low-income elderly people in nursing homes? People with advanced stages of HIV/AIDS whose lives depend on housing assistance?
In short, the bill is another proposal to cap federal spending in the guise of deficit reduction without doing the hard, politically-dangerous work of naming and quantifying the cuts.
Happily, it seems not to be going anywhere in its current form — as of this writing, no cosponsors except the original five.
But it could help shape the debate. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see pieces of the bill resurface in others that will have more traction.