Tag: state and local governments

Food Stamps Cut?

Prior to last week’s passage of another $26 billion in bailout money for state and local governments, I noted that the legislation wasn’t really offset:

Congressional Democrats say the measure is paid for with a combination of spending cuts elsewhere and tax increases. However, the new spending is front loaded and much of the spending cuts wouldn’t be realized until after 2013. For example, the Congressional Budget Office’s score of the legislation shows savings from the food stamps program of $12 billion from 2014-2018. Congress can come back any time before that and rescind the cuts.

It’s typical Beltway budgetary sleight-of-hand: increase spending up front and “cut” spending on the back-end to get a more deficit-friendly score from the CBO. Democrats don’t really intend to see these cuts actualized, and have indicated as much. That hasn’t stopped media outlets from across the ideological spectrum from running sensationalist headlines.

A headline from CBS News says “Food Stamps Slashed to Pay for Teachers Job Bill.” A hysterical headline at the leftish Huffington Post reads “Cutting Food Stamps to Save Teacher Jobs: A Hateful Trade-off.” And a headline on the conservative Human Events website claims “Democrats Rob Food Stamps to Pay Teachers.”

Adding to the heat is legislation moving through Congress that would “cut” future food stamps spending to help pay for increased child nutrition programs. But as was the case with the bailout legislation, the only change that’s being proposed is to move forward the expiration date for the temporary food stamp expansion contained in the 2009 stimulus bill.

In addition to unnecessary hand-wringing over the future, the near past is all but being ignored. As the following chart shows, the cost of the food stamps programs has exploded over the decade thanks to the recession and benefit increases under presidents Bush and Obama:

The food stamps program needs to be cut. In fact, the entire federal welfare system needs to be devolved to the states, or preferably, private charity. That phantom cuts following a massive increase in food stamps spending would cause such angst indicates that those of us who believe the needy aren’t best served by Uncle Sam have our work cut out.

Re. Ezra Klein: Did State and Local Anti-stimulus Nullify Federal Stimulus?

A recent Washington Post column by Ezra Klein dreamed up a new excuse for the conspicuous failure of Obama’s so-called stimulus plan.   Klein argues that the stimulus of federal spending has been offset by the “anti-stimulus” of fiscal austerity by state and local governments.  For proof he quotes Bruce Bartlett, who is fast becoming the favorite go-to guy for liberals seeking conservative allies in their endless quest for more spending and taxes. 

Bartlett says, “When the history of the current crisis is written, much of the blame will be placed on the sharp fiscal contraction of state and local governments.  I think economists will view this as a preventable error equivalent to the Fed’s passive shrinkage of the money supply in the early 1930s.”

A historian himself, Bartlett imagines this to be a question that will have to be pondered by historians in the distant future.   But it is easy to identify each sector’s direct contribution to the overall growth rate of real GDP from a St. Louis Fed publication, “National Economic Trends.” 

State and local government spending was rising during the first three quarters of the recession, and the drop in the fourth quarter of 2008 accounted for just 0.25% of the 5.37% annualized decline in GDP.  In the first quarter of 2009, state and local spending subtracted  just 0.19% from real GDP, but federal spending subtracted more (0.33%) due to cuts in defense spending.  Government obviously made only a minor contribution to the 6.4% drop in overall GDP.
  
In the second quarter of 2009, state and local spending was way up (by 0.48%), as was federal spending (0.85%).  But the private economy did not begin expanding until the third quarter – when government spending stopped diverting so many resources to unproductive uses.
 
The table shows that government spending on goods and services had nothing to do with the recovery (transfer payments don’t contribute to GDP).  

As a matter of simple accounting, the state and local sector has been a very minor negative force −scarcely comparable to the Fed’s inaction in 1930-32

Federal purchases, whether for heavily-subsidized ”green jobs” or shovel-ready pork, have been virtually irrelevant during the last two quarters.

Contributions to Real GDP Growth
……………………..  3rd…… 4th…… 1st qtr

Real GDP              2.2         5.6             3.0%
Private                   1.6         5.8             3.4
Federal                  0.6        0.0            0.1
State & Local     -0.1      -0.3           -0.5

Federal Aid: 45 Years of Failure

Yesterday, the Washington Post reviewed the life of Phyllis McClure, who was an advocate for federal education spending in low-income neighborhoods.

Once an aspiring journalist, Ms. McClure joined the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in 1969. She immediately used her penchant for muckraking to illuminate the widespread misuse of federal funds meant to boost educational opportunities for the country’s neediest students.

The money was part of the new Title I program, created under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The slim volume that Ms. McClure wrote in 1969 with Ruby Martin – ‘Title I of ESEA: Is It Helping Poor Children?’ – showed how millions of dollars across the country were being used by school districts to make purchases – such as a Baptist church building in Detroit and 18 portable swimming pools in Memphis – that had little to do with helping impoverished students.

The authors charged that money meant for poor children was being used illegally by school districts as a welcome infusion of extra cash to meet overhead expenses, raise teacher pay and other such general aid. In addition, they wrote, districts were using Title I funds to continue racial segregation by offering black children free food, medical care, shoes and clothes as long as they remained in predominantly black schools.

That all sounds rather familiar–state and local governments misusing federal aid dollars. As I’ve written about at length, there was an explosion in federal aid for the states in the 1960s, with hundreds of new programs established. But huge problems developed almost immediately–excessive bureaucracy and paperwork, one-size-fits-all federal regulations stifling local innovation, and the inability of federal aid to actually solve any local problems. 

I live in Fairfax County, Virginia. The county receives about $15 million a year in federal “Title I” aid for disadvantaged schools–the program Ms. McClure was worried about. But Fairfax is the highest-income county in the nation! Why are hard-working middle-income taxpayers in, say, Ohio, paying for local schools in ultra-wealthy Fairfax?

Aside from the misallocation problem, academic evidence suggests that state and local governments mainly offset federal spending for poor schools by reducing their own spending on poor schools. Poor schools end up being no further ahead.

The federal aid system is crazy. Even if federal aid is a good idea in theory–and it isn’t–the central planners haven’t been able to make it work as they envisioned in more than four decades. The federal aid system has simply been a giant make-work project for the millions of well-paid federal/state/local administrators who handle all the paperwork and regulations.  

Even if federal aid was constitutional or it made any economic sense, it will never work efficiently. Aid will always be a more wasteful way of funding local activities than if local governments funded activities by themselves. Aid will always be politically misallocated by Congress. Aid will always involve top-down regulations from Washington that reduce local flexibility and innnovation. And aid will always undermine federalism and the American system of limited government.

It’s time to blow up the whole system.  Title 1 and all 800 other state aid programs should be repealed.

Unions and State Government Management

State and local governments that have high levels of unionization have a harder time efficiently managing their finances and other aspects of their operations. At least, that’s my argument. The other day, I showed that states with higher levels of debt had higher levels of unionization. The statistical correlation was very strong.

Today, let’s look at the quality of state management, as measured by a major report by the Pew Center on the States. The Pew report gave letter grades to the 50 state governments for management of finances, employees, infrastructure, and information. Pew also provided an overall state score.

I’ve converted the Pew overall state government management scores to numbers from 1 to 10 and plotted them against state unionization rates (“10” is the best management score). The chart below shows that as the share of a state workforce that is unionized grows, the overall quality of state management falls, as measure by the Pew scores. The chart shows the raw data in blue dots and the statistically fitted line in pink. 

The bottom line: public-sector unionization is not a good idea, as it apparently leads to lower-quality government management and to higher debt levels. As such, I’ve argued that collective bargaining in state and local government workforces should be banned.

(Details: R-square at 0.12 indicates that unionization explains only a small share of management quality, but the F statistic at 6.3 and the t-stat on the management variable of -2.5 indicate that the regression is quite strongly statistically significant. Note that the unionization variable is the union share in state and local governments, but the Pew data regards only the states. Thus, I’m assuming that my unionization variable is a reasonable proxy for state-level unionization.  Thanks for data help from Amy Mandler )

Unions and Government Debt

In a recent bulletin, I argued that public-sector unions impose various costs and burdens on state and local governments. Here is some more evidence.

The chart below shows a scatter plot of the union shares in state/local government workforces and state/local government debt levels as a share of state gross domestic product. Each blue dot is a U.S. state.

The variables are correlated – as the union share increases, a state tends to have a higher government debt load. The chart shows the fitted regression line in pink dots (R-square=0.27; F-stat=18; t-stat on the union share variable=4.2).

The correlation is likely caused by the fact that unionized government workers are powerful lobby groups that push for higher government-worker compensation and higher government spending in general.

(Thanks to Amy Mandler for data help and Andrew Biggs for suggestions. Andrew’s work on state debt is here).

State and Local Subsidies

Earlier this week I criticized the U.S. Conference of Mayors for going to Washington and groveling for more federal handouts. Let me provide some more background for my criticisms with a look at federal budget data. The first chart shows that since 1960, total federal subsidies to state and local government have increased an astounding 1,173%.

Several readers have asked me what particular programs account for this large increase in state aid. The federal budget breaks down the total figures into categories. Not surprisingly, health subsidies — mainly Medicaid — account for almost half of the current total and are the driving force behind the massive overall increase:

However, there have been large increases in other activities as well. Here are the changes by federal budget function in state aid since 1960, in billions of 2010 dollars:

  • Health: $1.5 to $310.7 (+21,128%)
  • Education, Training, Employment & Social Services: $3.7 to $103.3 (+2,723%)
  • Community & Regional Development: $0.7 to $20.3 (+2,674%)
  • Other*: $0.7 to $12.0 (+1,707%)
  • Natural Resources & Environment: $0.7 to $7.8 (+966%)
  • Income Security: $19.0 to $113.8 (+498%)
  • Transportation: $22.0 to $73.5 (+235%)
  • General Government: $1.5 to $4.7 (+221%)
  • Administration of Justice*: $2.6 to $5.3 (+100%)
  • Agriculture: $1.5 to $1.0 (-32%)

*Administration of Justice begins in 1975. “Other” begins in 1965 and consists of grants for national defense, energy, social security, and veterans’ benefits and services.

All of these categories are at or near their high water mark in constant dollars with the exception of Natural Resources & Environment ($13.8 in 1980), Agriculture ($4.5 in 1985), and General Government ($26.9 in 1975).

Rather than being deprived, state and local governments have developed an unhealthy dependency on federal money. In a way, the states have become an extension of the federal government. This is at odds with the Constitution, which clearly intended for the federal government to have specific limited powers. As the 10th amendment states, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” There seems to be very little reserved to the states anymore, and even less to the people.

See these essays for more on constitutional basics and the desirability of fiscal federalism.

Federal Subsidy Programs Top 2,000!

January 22, 2010 is a day that should live in infamy, at least among believers in limited government. On that day, the federal government added its 2,000th subsidy program for individuals, businesses, or state and local governments.

The number of federal subsidy programs soared 21 percent during the 1990s and 40 percent during the 2000s. The entire nation is jumping aboard Washington’s gravy train. My assistant, Amy Mandler, noticed the recent addition of two new Department of Justice programs, and that pushed us over the threshold to reach 2,001.

There is a federal subsidy program for every year that has passed since Emperor Augustus held sway in Rome. We’ve gone from bread and circuses to food stamps, the National Endowment for the Arts, and 1,999 other hand-out programs from the imperial city on the Potomac.

Figure 1 shows that the number of federal subsidy programs has almost doubled since the mid-1980s after some modest cutbacks under President Ronald Reagan.

Most people are aware that federal spending is soaring, but the federal government is also increasing the scope of its activities, intervening in many areas that used to be left to state governments, businesses, charities, and individuals. To measure the widening scope, Figure 1 uses the program count from current and past editions of the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance. The CFDA is an official compilation of all federal aid programs, including grants, loans, insurance, scholarships, and other types of benefits.

Figure 2 shows the number of subsidy programs listed in the CFDA by federal department. It is a rough guide to the areas in society in which the government is most in violation of federalism—the constitutional principle that the federal government ought not to encroach on activities that are properly state, local, and private.

As the federal octopus extends its tentacles ever further, state governments are becoming no more than regional subdivisions of the national government, businesses and nonprofit groups are becoming tools of the state, and individualism is giving way to a more European desire for cradle-to-grave dependency.

Yet recent election results indicate that Americans may be starting to wake up and fight back. Whether we are more successful than Cicero and Cato the Younger in battling to retain our limited-government republic remains to be seen.