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Can We Discuss Poverty Like Grown-Ups?

eye on the news

Can We Discuss Poverty Like Grown-Ups?

Eduardo Porter questions the sincerity of conservative anti-poverty strategies. October 28, 2015
Photo by Sam Chills

“You don’t care about the poor” is a serious accusation. The charge should carry a particularly high burden of proof when leveled at an entire political party or policy approach. Yet Eduardo Porter made a remarkably thin case in his most recent New York Times column, “The Republican Party’s Strategy to Ignore Poverty.” If the left-wing response to serious conservative ideas for tackling poverty is going to involve ear-covering and shouting “la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you,” constructive bipartisan discussions will grow increasingly rare.

Porter centers his argument on the landmark (and bipartisan) welfare reform of 1996, which converted the traditional federal program of cash welfare to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a block grant of funds for states capped at about $16.5 billion. Because that cap was not indexed to inflation, and because states were given flexibility in the use of funds, welfare rolls have declined significantly. “Welfare was essentially made irrelevant to the lives of the poor,” writes Porter, proof that “the block grant strategy . . . allows the assistance to wither while poverty survives.” Except that “welfare,” in the form of the cash payments block-granted in 1996, is a fraction of total government assistance to the poor. Porter knows this. Indeed, he once explained in his column that “welfare reform in the mid-1990s, to a large extent, replaced cash payments with food stamps and an expanded earned-income tax credit [EITC].”

While it is true that TANF funding declined in real terms from $23 billion in 1996 to $16.5 billion in 2014 (in constant 2014 dollars), food-stamp spending doubled from $37 billion to $74 billion during that time, and the EITC rose from $43 billion to $65 billion. In other words, every dollar of TANF reductions has been met with almost ten dollars of increases in the other support.

Porter wants readers to focus on Arizona, in particular, where the GOP is ostensibly “tightening the screws” on the poor. Arizona just capped eligibility for TANF at 12 months over a lifetime, which will—according to the report Porter mentions—cut spending by $6 million next year. That’s million with an “m.” What tax cut will Arizona Republicans lavish on the wealthy with this relatively meager savings? To Porter’s credit, he explains that the state plans to spend the money it saves on “child protection, foster care and adoption services.” But, no matter, he still believes “lawmakers took it from the pockets of poor people” when they should have raised taxes instead.

Growing anti-poverty spending is itself largely responsible for Arizona’s budget crunch. Medicaid spending in Arizona rose faster than in any other state between 2000 and 2012, exploding from $3 billion to $8 billion in constant dollars. That’s billion with a “b.” Much of the funding is federal, but Arizona was also the only state that saw its state-sponsored Medicaid costs more than double as a share of its budget—from 7 percent to 15 percent. Nationwide, Medicaid spending has grown from $139 billion to $301 billion. So much for “withering.”

The Arizona portion of Porter’s story is merely prelude to his criticism of House speaker-in-waiting Paul Ryan, whom he fears will bring the Arizona treatment nationwide. (An odd claim, since the policies enabling Arizona’s actions are already national ones.) Ryan, you see, “has laid out detailed plans to overhaul what remains of the American social safety net.” A central component of this plan, which Ryan calls an “Opportunity Grant,” would combine the funding on numerous anti-poverty programs, including TANF, food stamps, and housing vouchers, into a single chunk of money for a state to spend on anti-poverty initiatives. That sounds like a block grant, and TANF was a block grant, so Porter finds it “hard to view these plans as anything but a bald effort to save money.”

If you click Porter’s link, however, and read Ryan’s plan, you’ll learn that it would be “deficit-neutral relative to current law.” A helpful, bright blue call-out box reiterates this point and further specifies that “each participating state gets the same amount of funding they receive from the programs” being consolidated. In July 2014 remarks made while introducing the plan, Ryan also specified that states get “not a penny less” and that they would be required to “spend this money on people in need.” Porter looks beyond Ryan, though, suggesting that “the block grant approach has emerged as the central plank of the Republican strategy.” If he is thinking of Senator Marco Rubio’s aggressive proposal to consolidate anti-poverty funds and hand them back to states through a “Flex Fund,” that plan is specifically “revenue neutral” as well.

To borrow a phrase, it’s hard to view Porter’s argument as anything but a bald effort to attack Republicans. A circular logic is at work: Republicans don’t care about the poor, therefore Republican policies must not be aimed at helping the poor, therefore anyone proposing a Republican policy does not care about the poor. What Republican would want to offer a proposal in such an environment? What Democrat would consider collaborating? Of course, if the measure of one’s concern for the poor is the size of the federal check one would write, then conservatives will lose the bidding war every time.

America spends nearly $1 trillion on anti-poverty programs, yet no one seems happy with the results. Mindlessly writing another, bigger check is not evidence of “caring.” Pursuing substantive reform within the existing budget is not an attempt to “ignore” anything. Maybe the new proposals are good policy, maybe they’re bad policy, but they’re certainly serious and worthy of consideration.

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