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Our Glorious Laboratories of Democracy

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Replacing defined federal benefits with block grants was a terrible idea in 1995, and once the glow of the late 90s-economy faded it worked out really badly. Republicans, of course, want to do this to the rest of the federal welfare state:

A bit of history is necessary to understand how we reached this point. Two decades ago, when the Clinton administration agreed with a Republican-controlled Congress to “end welfare as we know it,” Washington replaced the poor’s entitlement to aid from the federal government with a fixed block grant to states.

The states were given great flexibility about how to spend the money and a powerful incentive not to give it to the needy. And for all the initial enthusiasm for the idea, welfare reform has fallen far short of the claims of its supporters.

Nonetheless, the block grant approach has emerged as the central plank of the Republican strategy to confront America’s intractable poverty. The party’s main presidential candidates have woven poverty and inequality into their campaign speeches. Nearly all of them are expected to show up in January at the Republican poverty summit meeting in Columbia, S.C., organized by Mr. Ryan, who has laid out detailed plans to overhaul what remains of the American social safety net.

[…]

States did not uphold their end of the bargain,” said Ron Haskins, an expert on welfare who worked for more than a decade for House Republicans. “So why do something like this again?”

Arizona is a prime example of what has happened in states where Republicans rule. By now, only about nine out of every 100 poor families benefit from the cash welfare program, down from 55 percent two decades ago. This has nothing to do with the program’s objective of helping poor adults with children escape the stigma of welfare and get a job, still the best antipoverty tool there is. Arizona simply needed the money for something else.

Specifically, as noted in a report by researchers at Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, the state, facing a huge jump in the number of neglected children put in foster care, needed more money to “plug state budget gaps and to fund child protection, foster care and adoption services.” Rather than ask state taxpayers to help fill the gap, lawmakers took it from the pockets of poor people.

On average, states use only about a half of their funds under the TANF program to fund its core objectives: Provide the poor with cash aid or child care, or help connect them to jobs.

Devolution isn’t about letting states “experiment” with the best ways of helping people; it’s about letting them deny necessary funds to people who need them. I hope the experience of John Roberts’s inept re-write of the Medicaid expansion will ensure that Democrats will not fall into the same trap they did under the Clinton administration.

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  • Rob in CT

    I think enough Dems have figured it out.

    • Linnaeus

      I hope so (and I tend to agree), because it’s going to take a lot of work to reverse or mitigate a policy that’s been in place for twenty years now.

  • DrDick

    Screwing the poor is central to their creed.

  • Phil Perspective

    I hope the experience of John Roberts’s inept re-write of the Medicaid expansion will ensure that Democrats will not fall into the same trap they did under the Clinton administration.

    Good luck with that!!!!

    • Scott Lemieux

      Can you cite some recent examples of Democrats wanting to devolve power to the states? Thanks!

      • Denverite

        Ben Nelson insisting that states be given the opportunity to run their own health insurance exchanges. (Depending on your definition of “recent”).

        • Rob in CT

          And of course he along with most of the “Blue Dogs” have lost their seats anyway.

          Now if the Dems run some blue doggy candidates and win back some purple/reddish seats, we probably will see more of that.

          • Scott Lemieux

            And, even so, that was just formal because of the federal backstop. It’s not comparable to block grants that give the states wide discretion.

            • Denverite

              I didn’t say it was an identical example! Just that it is an example of Democrats wanting to devolve some degree of power to the states.

        • William Berry

          Depending on your definition of Democrat.

      • Rob in CT

        Isn’t it more recent examples of Dems thinking it’s good/necessary politics to go along with Republican desire to devolve power to the states?

        I wasn’t paying that much attention back then (and lived in a right-wing household) but IIRC the GOP won control of congress in mid-terms and as a result the Clinton WH compromised on a bunch of stuff.

        A comparison between 1995-2001 and 2011-present seems relevant.

        After getting shellacked in the 2010 mid-terms the Dems did go a bit wobbly. But I don’t think they’ve surrendered nearly as much to the Right as they did in the mid to late 90s. Am I wrong?

        • NonyNony

          You’re not wrong, but I’ve been trying to figure out recently if this is something that the Dems get the credit for or if it’s the Republicans who have made it so that the Dems literally can’t do what they did post-1994.

          Republicans this time around aren’t allowed to compromise with Dems – if there’s a deal that a group of Dems is willing to take it becomes instantly unacceptable for the Republicans to actually make it. That puts the brakes on a lot of the kind of disappointing things that the Dems and Clinton did post-’94 because Obama and the Dems in Congress now literally have not had the opportunity to make those kinds of deals.

          I mean, I’m pretty sure we have better Democrats now than in the post-’94 period all around, but I wonder if there were Republicans more willing to cut deals if Obama’s rep wouldn’t have ended up as tarnished as Clinton’s has.

          • Rob in CT

            Oh, I only think we have better Democrats now because we have worse Republicans. Some of that is as you say: the GOP probably could’ve made some deals we’d have hated.

            But also, some Dems have been radicalized. Not as much as the GOP base, but a fair bit.

      • ThrottleJockey

        Bernie Sanders on guns.

        Boxer and Feinstein on California’s right to regulate environmental issues, the raising of chickens and eggs, etc.

        Many Dems on GMO labeling requirements.

        And a way off topic hat tip. Glad to see LGM diversifying its ranks. See that wasnt so hard was it! Looking forward to seeing more of the same!!

    • Lurking Canadian

      I submit that Roberts’ re-write of the Medicaid expansion was very ept indeed. Given that his objective was to deny healthcare to as many people as possible, it succeeded brilliantly.

  • Nobdy

    TANF is a shockingly inadequate program. Every time I see how much money people get from it I am left both impressed that they manage to survive on it and ashamed that they have to.

    Welfare to work is not a bad goal in and of itself but it cannot be accomplished in a vacuum just by wishing and praying and hurting poor people. Most people want to work but they need available jobs and a society structure that supports their working (child care, transportation etc…).

    To put people in a situation where work is nearly impossible for them to get and keep AND to deny them the basic necessities of life is utter barbarism and future generations will be baffled and ashamed that our society was so rich and allowed so many to be so poor.

    • DrDick

      There is also the problem that “welfare to work” assumes, contrary to reality, that there is meaningful (pays well enough to live on) work available for the poor.

    • Lurking Canadian

      I never understood the praise for Clinton’s “welfare reform success”. The metric most commonly used was “number of people removed from the welfare rolls”. That is the easiest possible target to hit: just kick people off the list.

      Getting them off the rolls in such a way that they are self-sufficient afterwards should be the goal, but that didn’t seem to be what anybody was interested in measuring.

      • Murc

        I never understood the praise for Clinton’s “welfare reform success”.

        Many, not all but many, are not praising it as an actual policy measure designed to help the poor.

        They’re praising it as a way of praising the way Clinton got a bunch of racist hicks to vote for him by sticking it to poor colored folks. Clinton got a bunch of white conservatives to return briefly to the Democratic fold in 1992 and 1996, and those people, as we all know, are the only real ‘Muricans.

        • Rob in CT

          1. Pundits love them some “bipartisan solutions” – actual results meh.

          2. It was arguably politically successful (not sure this is actually true, but political media at the time apparently thought so).

          • ThrottleJockey

            Do we know how it affected poverty rates? I understand that many people have in effect shifted over to SSI.

      • Brett

        The praise was because after it happened, the poverty percentage continued going down. This was because of the late 1990s boom, but at the time a lot of conservatives and “third way” types were like, “Hey, this works after all!” after a bunch of Democrats had warned that this would lead to an increase in poverty.

      • Hogan

        It appeared to have some success in the late ’90s, with the tightest labor market we’ve had in the last fifty years or so. That’s not the kind of thing you should be counting on to make your policy work.

      • tsam

        I never understood the praise for Clinton’s “welfare reform success”.

        That only comes from media assholes who spend all their time concern trolling the deficit and federal debt.

        No liberal who has spent any time actually thinking about it would praise that kind of shit–especially those who were around at the time and remember the Gingrich Clan and their phony bullshit. It was all term limits and balanced budgets back then, and it was every bit the steaming pile of bullshit that the anti-Sharia/anti-PPACA cranks are today.

        Welfare “reform” sells. It’s an easy way to give off the appearance that you’re fiscally responsible. It’s any easy thing to support when you’re not the one living the wide awake nightmare of being on the edge of or completely unable to feed your own children, even if you work a full time fucking job.

      • Latverian Diplomat

        The perception of success also benefitted from the ’90s economic boom, which was the last peak in the labor force participation rate.

    • mds

      it cannot be accomplished in a vacuum just by wishing and praying and hurting poor people.

      “But that’s all we know how to do.”
      –The modern GOP

      • Lee Rudolph

        it cannot be accomplished in a vacuum just by wishing and praying and hurting poor people.

        “But that’s all we know how to do.”
        –The modern GOP

        “And it feels so good!!!”

  • Davis X. Machina

    The point of social provision legislation is not social provision.

    Once you’ve got the minimal ‘peasants aren’t cutting the nobles’ throats’ level installed, the rest is just an edifying moral spectacle, provided for the people who don’t need it.

  • Bruce Leroy

    Citing Ron Haskins as a welfare expert is some funny shit

  • Hogan

    Specifically, as noted in a report by researchers at Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, the state, facing a huge jump in the number of neglected children put in foster care, needed more money to “plug state budget gaps and to fund child protection, foster care and adoption services.” Rather than ask state taxpayers to help fill the gap, lawmakers took it from the pockets of poor people.

    So the plan to deal with the increasing number of neglected children was to make more of them by cutting off TANF benefits? What the ever-loving blue-eyed fuck?

    • tsam

      Always the plan of craven politicians. If something is going to fuck the poor, do it harder and faster.

  • Brett

    The sad thing is that I wouldn’t mind having a block grant (with inflation adjustment built in for amount) for a “blue” state to try out Single Payer Health Care or some type of aggressive jobs program to deal with unemployment and poverty. And there have been some successes out of block grant programs – IIRC that’s where the good Utah policy on helping the long-term homeless has come from.

    But since the “red” states will just abuse it to deny welfare coverage to the poor and plug budget holes while cutting taxes, we can’t do it. Instead we have to do regular programs while granting out occasional waivers.

    • Murc

      Blue states are no more immune to budget shenanigans than red states are, especially since they lack fiscal and monetary options the feds have.

    • Latverian Diplomat

      How much does the block grant formula constrain aggressive state policies? (This is an honest question, I don’t know how this part works).

      In the short term, a policy that does a lot of long term good could be significantly more expensive and require a big contribution from the state. If those short term costs exceed what the Feds provide, it’s going to be a tough sell in the state legislature. Even if those costs could go down in the long term due to more effective assistance.

      So, if block grants effectively say, “you can try anything, as long as it costs the same or less from day one” then perhaps it doesn’t allow much room for experimentation on the progressive end of the policy spectrum.

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