An obscure event last week provided an example of how Virginians have come to accept -- even appreciate -- profligate government spending.
On Wednesday Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) announced that the Virginia Department of Social Services had been awarded a $10.7 million bonus from the federal government for exceptional performance in collecting child-support payments. This was treated as good news.
Hardly anyone asked what, if anything, can be gained by giving additional money to an agency that already is adequately funded. No one questioned the purpose of spending millions of taxpayer dollars on rewarding a bureaucracy. (The money goes to the department, not to individual employees.) And apparently no one raised the most obvious issue of all: When children in Virginia are owed a collective $2.2 billion in child support, wouldn't the money be better spent on their support than on the government's?
Unfortunately, spending for the sake of spending seems to be a requirement of the modern welfare state. Most Americans have no idea how roundly they were snookered by welfare reform legislation in 1995. When Congress changed the federal entitlement to block grants to be administered by the states, it made receipt of the federal funds contingent on states continuing to spend 75 to 80 percent of the amount they spent on welfare when payouts were at their height in 1994. So if every welfare recipient in Virginia gets a job and transfers off the rolls, the state still has to find ways to squander $128 million on welfare each year if it doesn't want to lose out on federal funds.
The most obvious solution is the creation of new social programs, such as Virginia Individual Development Accounts (VIDAs), which are savings accounts matched by taxpayer dollars. Households earning 200 percent of the federal poverty level -- $38,200 for a family of four -- are eligible if they wish to save for such things as buying a house or starting a business. Taxpayers contribute $2 for every $1 the account-holder saves, up to a match of $4,000. Nice work if you can get it.
The Comprehensive Health Investment Project (CHIP) says its mission is "to partner with communities, to strengthen families with young children, to improve community health and to increase family self-sufficiency." In plain language, the program supervises parents.
"CHIP nurses and home visitors work to develop plans for parenting education, health and nutrition, home safety, education and job training," Virginia tells the feds.
Clearly, children born to incompetent parents need someone to look out for them. But if CHIP is in place, why is it necessary to have the Healthy Families program -- also funded by state welfare money? The latter offers "intensive home-visiting services for up to five years for new parents who are assessed as being at-risk of child abuse/neglect." If the Healthy Families program works, why spend more welfare funds on the Child Abuse and Neglect Advocacy Project, the Domestic Violence Program and a host of other projects? Answer: The state feels required to throw away the money.
Virginia already had programs providing job training, housing assistance, child care, transportation subsidies, etc. The requirement to meet some benchmark figure of welfare spending ensures duplication of those efforts. Indeed, it has become so difficult for states to find ways to waste the required dollars that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced last year that they could spend some of the federal money on programs "supporting healthy marriage."
Too bad that Warner didn't use his position as chairman of the National Governors Association to rally his colleagues to lobby Congress to eliminate this unfunded mandate. But as long as the state is required to spend welfare money on new programs, Virginia's legislature at least could eliminate older programs that are now redundant. How many job-training programs and social services does one state need?
Almost all Americans support the idea of a public safety net. But most people probably believe that public funds should be spent on providing such things as food and shoes for needy children -- not on cars and padded savings accounts for able-bodied adults. It is outrageous that the federal government requires states to waste money on programs that may not be effective or even needed. This policy doesn't protect the welfare of individuals. It protects the welfare of big government.