Tag: food stamp program

End Federal Welfare - Don’t Mend It

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), the chairman of the conservative House Republican Study Committee, recently introduced “The Welfare Reform Act of 2011.” The legislation’s two key components are the imposition of work requirements on food stamps recipients and the capping of total spending for 77 welfare programs at 2007 levels (adjusted for inflation going forward) when unemployment drops below 6.5 percent.

From the RSC press release:

Congressional Republicans and President Bill Clinton enacted reforms in 1996 that required beneficiaries of a new welfare program (TANF) to either work or prepare for a job. President Clinton triumphantly declared these reforms would “end welfare as we know it,” and in fact millions of families have since moved off the TANF rolls and begun to provide for themselves.

Still, TANF is only 1 of 77 federal programs that provide benefits specifically to poor and low-income Americans. Despite the success of these reforms, combined state and federal welfare spending has almost doubled since 1996. Since President Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty in 1964, Americans have spent around $16 trillion on means-tested welfare. We will spend another $10 trillion over the next decade based on recent projections. Even with all these resources devoted to assistance for the poor, poverty is higher today than it was in the 1970s.

The bold text is my emphasis. I emphasized it because I have a hard time calling the reform of one welfare program a “success” when dozens of other federal welfare programs more than took its place. In my opinion, it’s analogous to winning a battle but losing the war – badly. Or, in keeping with the military theme, it was a Pyrrhic victory.

The aftermath of TANF is one reason why I’m not enthusiastic about the RSC’s legislation. Assuming the bill becomes law (it won’t anytime soon), will the scope of federal government’s powers have become more limited? Will the now commonplace attitude that the federal government exists to provide for us at our neighbor’s expense begin to recede? Will the tangled mess that is the relationship between the federal government and the states be unsnarled?

While I don’t take issue with the House conservatives’ desire to rein in welfare spending and limit the pathologies that the food stamp program engenders, it’s disappointing that the propriety of the federal government’s role in providing welfare remains virtually unchallenged on Capitol Hill.

The designers of the Constitution gave the federal government a tidy, defined list of powers – everything else was to be left to the states or to the people. Yes, that set-up has gradually been eviscerated. Yes, the federal government isn’t going to return to its more constrained origins in the near future. However, across the country there is renewed interest in reinstituting limits on federal power. Thus, there is hope for the long-term.

Policymakers who claim to share that interest would better serve this long-term hope by introducing legislation that returns powers the federal government has assumed to the states. Instead of tinkering with federal welfare programs, let’s have the public discussion and debate over the fundamental justness and desirability of letting Washington dictate how to meet the needs of the less fortunate.

[See these Cato essays (here, here, and here) for more on federal welfare programs and why both taxpayers and those in need would be better off if they were abolished. See this Cato essay for more on the desirability of fiscal federalism.]

Food Stamps vs. Cash Welfare

A couple of weeks ago I discussed a New York Times report on soaring food stamp use. Yesterday, the New York Times reported that cash welfare use in New York under the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program started to rise more recently. The Times calls this “something of a riddle” given that food stamp usage has been increasing throughout the recession.

But the Times solves the riddle when it acknowledges: “It is much simpler to receive food stamps than cash assistance.” The 1996 welfare reform that replaced the broken Aid for Families with Dependent Children with TANF imposed more stringent time limits and work requirements on recipients. By contrast, the 2002 farm bill expanded food stamp eligibility, increased benefits, and made it easier to claim benefits. The following chart shows the result:

200912_blog_dehaven2

A food stamp user interviewed by the Times explains:

“It used to be easier to go on cash assistance,” she said as she left a food stamp office in Brooklyn this month. “You didn’t have to go to work, you didn’t have to report every day to an office and sign in and sign out. Now, if you don’t go to those group job meetings in the mornings, they shut down your whole welfare case. So that’s why I just get food stamps.”

In the Times article on food stamps, the USDA official in charge of the program was reportedly happy that usage was up and even wanted to see continued growth. The new article quotes an advocate for government welfare programs with similar feelings on cash welfare:

“It should be considered a positive thing and a natural thing as we start to head into a 10 percent overall unemployment rate in New York,” said David R. Jones, the president and chief executive of the Community Service Society, one of the city’s oldest social services agencies for low-income people. “If unemployment rates continue to spiral upward in New York, and you didn’t see an increase in welfare, something would be seriously wrong. That would mean that we weren’t getting people on relief quickly enough.”

The Community Service Society’s website says its mission “is to identify problems which create a permanent poverty class in New York City, and to advocate the systemic changes required to eliminate such problems.” But the federal welfare system has created a permanent poverty class.

Michael Tanner got it right in his book, The Poverty of Welfare, that government officials and welfare activists have a vested interest in these programs:

Whatever the intention behind government programs, they are soon captured by special interests. The nature of government is such that programs are almost always implemented in a way to benefit those with a vested interest in them rather than to actually achieve the programs’ stated goals. Among the non-poor with a vital interest in anti-poverty programs are social workers and government employees who administer the programs. Thus, anti-poverty programs are usually more concerned with protecting the prerogatives of the bureaucracy than with fighting poverty.

Food Stamp Use Soars and Stigma Fades

That’s the title of a piece in Saturday’s New York Times. That welfare usage is up in a recession isn’t surprising, but if the stigma is truly fading it’s not a positive development. As a Cato essay on food subsidies states, “The [food stamp] program contributes to long-term dependence on government and produces various social pathologies as side effects.” Disturbingly, the USDA official who oversees the program is pleased:

Although the program is growing at a record rate, the federal official who oversees it would like it to grow even faster. ‘I think the response of the program has been tremendous,’ said Kevin Concannon, an under secretary of agriculture, ‘but we’re mindful that there are another 15, 16 million who could benefit.’

There are certainly people in need of assistance, but the government is the wrong delivery system. Michael Tanner sums up why in his book, The Poverty of Welfare:

In the absence of government welfare, the civil society can be expected to rise to the occasion, as it always has, to address the needs of the poor in a way that is both more compassionate and more effective. No government program can provide the degree of flexibility and diversity of private ones. But perhaps more importantly, voluntary, private charity treats both givers and recipients as individuals, fully respecting their worth and dignity. Unlike the coercive nature of government, private charity understands that true charity starts with the individual and that individual’s choice to give out of individual conscience and virtue.

The Times piece goes on to provide anecdotal cases of food stamp recipients who traditionally harbored negative views of the program. In an example of why federalism needs reviving, we learn that one fellow “gave in” when “an outreach worker appeared at his son’s Head Start program.”

The outreach worker is a telltale sign. Like many states, Ohio has campaigned hard to raise the share of eligible people collecting benefits, which are financed entirely by the federal government and brought the state about $2.2 billion last year. By contrast, in the federal cash welfare program, states until recently bore the entire cost of caseload growth, and nationally the rolls have stayed virtually flat.

If the outreach worker is a state government employee as the article appears to indicate, it means his or her salary is funded by taxpayers. This person’s job is to go to a Head Start program, which is also funded by taxpayers, to encourage people to sign up for additional government benefits to be funded by – drum roll – taxpayers.

We would have a more efficient government welfare system if the state governments that wanted to have welfare programs had to fund them using state tax revenues, without the subsidies and incentives for profligacy from Washington. Even better would be to allow individuals to control funding for charitable causes through private contributions without a bloated government welfare system at all.