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Our Glorious Laboratories of Democracy



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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