The Problem With Block Grants

Kevin DrumI hate it when a commentator does his job so well that he leaves me with nothing to add. That was the case yesterday with Kevin Drum, Chart of the Day: Welfare Reform and the Great Recession. What I think I can do, however, is make his point a bit more clear. The issue here is how “block granting” is destroying welfare in this country and how conservatives want to use them to destroy most other programs that help the poor and middle classes.

You should remember that Bill Clinton campaigned in 1992 to “end welfare as we have come to know it.” And he followed through with that promise but in an abbreviated way: he simply ended welfare, although it wasn’t particularly clear at that time. He got a whole lot of plaudits for this “reform” because the welfare rolls really did go down. But that had nothing to do with the law; it was all due to the smoking hot economy. Of course people got off welfare: there were jobs available!

Once the economy tanked in 2000, people lost their jobs and slid back into poverty. But now the main welfare programs did not respond as you can see in the following graph from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP):

Results of Welfare Reform: More Poverty, Less Welfare

There are various reasons that welfare isn’t available for people when they want it. For example, there are now limits to the amount of time any person can get certain kinds of welfare. But the biggest problem here is that Clinton’s welfare “reform” turned federal welfare into block grants to the states. As as I’ve talked about many times around here: when the federal government provides money for programs it doesn’t administer, there is little incentive to maintain the funding. And that’s just what happened. According to CBPP:

Because the block grant has never been increased or adjusted for inflation, states received 32 percent less in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars in 2014 than they did in 1997. State minimum-required contributions to TANF have declined even more. To receive their full TANF block grant, states only have to spend on TANF purposes 80 percent of the amount they spent on AFDC and related programs in 1995. That “maintenance of effort” requirement isn’t adjusted for inflation, either.

And this is why conservatives love “block granting.” It has nothing to do with the oft-claimed conservative principle that local governments are more responsive to their people. As you see from the CBPP quote, most states do only the bare minimum to get the federal dollars. So the real reason that conservatives like block grants is that they are a politically viable way to destroy programs they don’t like.

Of course, there are ways to make block grants actually work. Here’s Kevin Drum on what we aren’t going to see coming from Paul “Poverty Slayer” Ryan:

If Paul Ryan ever seriously proposes—and wins Republican support for—a welfare reform plan that includes block grants which (a) grow with inflation and (b) adjust automatically when recessions hit, I’ll pay attention. Until then, they’re just a Trojan Horse for slowly but steadily eliminating federal programs that help the poor. After all, those tax cuts for the rich won’t fund themselves, will they?

No they won’t! Don’t buy the conservative propaganda about block grants.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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