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The incredible shrinking welfare program

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House Republicans quietly passed a bill on Wednesday that extends an unprecedented funding cut to a major federal welfare program—and even Democrats who opposed the change didn’t rise up to stop them. SOURCE: CRISTIANA COUCEIRO

With little fanfare, the House passed a little-noticed extension of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program that had so little opposition that it was passed by a so-called “voice vote,” which doesn’t require individual legislators to go on the record. The funds for TANF—a welfare-to-work program created by Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform legislation—were set to expire on Sept. 30. The money has supported welfare programs for low-income families with children, such as child-care subsidies for working parents. The House’s short-term extension maintains the $16.5 billion in baseline money for the program through the end of December. But it also zeroes out funding for “supplemental grants” that have been in place since the program’s inception.

Congress has traditionally set aside $319 million each year in supplemental TANF grants, an amount that’s remained relatively consistent throughout the program’s history.  The supplemental TANF money was meant to address some of the inequities built into the program’s original funding structure. It makes additional money available to states with rapidly growing populations and states that have historically provided small welfare grants per person—including many with the nation’s highest poverty rates.

Despite the record number of people in poverty, that pot of money has been shrinking over the past year. In late 2010, Congress cut the supplemental grants for the first time, unable to find the money to pay for the entire year’s funding. The funds expired in June, and the year’s total dropped to $211 million, on top of other cuts to the program. Under Wednesday’s bill, there will be no supplemental grants through December—a trend that could continue through 2012.

Seventeen states—including Texas, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana—will lose TANF money if the supplemental funds are ultimately not renewed, angering many Democrats and anti-poverty advocates.  Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Tx.) estimates that the funding cut for Texas alone will total $50 million a year if the bill becomes law and the supplement grants are never revived in the future. “If the expired Supplemental Grants are not extended, states stand to lose more than $3 billion over the next ten years, including over $500 million in Texas alone, likely resulting in programs and services that are cut at the state level,” he concludes.

Doggett offered a separate bill to continue the supplemental TANF funds, but it didn’t pass muster with the House GOP. “They’re looking for any place they can cut expenditures...for the least point of resistance to cut spending,” Doggett says. But ultimately, he joined the rest of the Democratic minority who supported Wednesday’s TANF bill with the funding cut out of fear that the program’s funding would expire entirely on Sept. 30 if they didn’t sign on to the GOP legislation. The bill still needs to pass the Senate, and Senate Dems could try to reinstate the supplement grants. But they would have to find some way to pay for the grants, with little time to do so in a politically intractable environment--and a vote that may come as soon as today.

Rep. Geoff Davis (R-Ky.), the Republican who sponsored the House TANF bill, counters that it’s a fiscally responsible move—and argues that he is simply following the example of the previous, Democratic-controlled Congress, which he says is responsible for letting the funds expire in the first place. “At some point, Congress needs to ask when ‘supplemental’ spending deserves to come to an end. The last Congress said the end should come this past June and H.R. 2943 respects that judgment,” says Rick Van Meter, Davis’s press secretary.

Democrats counter that the supplemental grants expired under the House Republicans’ watch in June, saying they were politically unable to fund the program for the entire year while they were still in the majority. “We consistently temporarily extended the program because this was all that we could get Republicans to agree to,” says Sarah Dohl, Doggett’s press secretary.

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