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.
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.