The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

They’re the think tank pushing for welfare work requirements. Republicans say they’re experts. Economists call it ‘junk science.’

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), joined by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), expresses support for the farm bill at a news conference on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

An obscure, Florida-based policy group with ties to House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and two of the country’s most conservative Republican governors has become one of the loudest and most persuasive voices in the debate over new work requirements in the food stamp program.

The Foundation for Government Accountability — headed by a former adviser to Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) — spent six years testing welfare changes in Kansas, Mississippi and other states before taking its ideas to Washington in 2017.

The Republican plan to tighten food stamp work requirements is advancing — without a single Democrat’s vote

On Friday, those ideas — and the FGA’s leveraging of state political connections and policy one-liners to become a fixture in GOP strategy discussions — were in the spotlight when the House voted on a farm bill that sought sweeping changes to work requirements for food stamp recipients.

The bill ultimately failed because of unrelated GOP struggles over immigration. But political observers said the inclusion of proposed changes to food stamps was testimony to the FGA’s growing influence in key Republican circles.

“The president and speaker have a lot of energy around welfare reform that’s infectious,” said Paul Winfree, President Trump’s former deputy assistant for public policy and a current director at the Heritage Foundation. “And one of the primary groups spreading that energy around from office to office is FGA. They are giving members the details and the messaging. This is a powerful combination.”

The work requirements at issue Friday would have fundamentally changed the food stamp program for many adult recipients. Under the plan, most able-bodied people between 18 and 60 would have to work or attend a state training program for 20 hours a week to receive benefits.

House Republicans — including Ryan, who was introduced to the group in 2016 through Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback — have repeatedly proffered the FGA’s analysis as proof that most Americans support strict work rules in welfare programs and that such rules boost income and employment.

Democrats, who opposed the farm bill because of the proposed changes, have fiercely disputed those claims. Rep. Collin C. Peterson (Minn.), the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, slammed the proposal in a Wednesday floor speech, saying it would deprive “an estimated 2 million Americans … [of] the help they need.”

The FGA, as well as more-established think tanks such as Heritage and the American Enterprise Institute, has long argued that welfare recipients leave poverty faster when their benefits are tied to employment.

But unlike the old guard, the FGA — with its low national profile, remote staff of 26 and annual donations of about $7 million in 2017 — until now devoted itself to state policy, said chief executive Tarren Bragdon.

That focus changed in 2016, the year Republicans swept the White House, the House and the Senate, and Bragdon met Ryan at the behest of Brownback, the speaker's former boss. The FGA had worked with Brownback to strengthen food stamp work requirements in Kansas, a cause that Ryan supported.

At a meeting with Bragdon in May 2016 and in subsequent conversations, Ryan expressed interest in the FGA’s work and research, Bragdon said. In January 2017, the FGA hired its first federal lobbyist. One year later, Bragdon made a presentation to House GOP leaders on “how to successfully move people from welfare to work” in programs such as SNAP, which provides food benefits.

“We saw an opportunity to take our state-level successes and expand them across America,” Bragdon said. “Our approach is to really tackle one big issue: how to give more Americans the life-changing power of work, at both the state and federal level.”

The FGA pursued that goal in the past by advancing bills that bar states from seeking waivers to food stamp requirements, as well as advocating for Medicaid work requirements and campaigning against Medicaid expansion.

Libertarian and conservative charitable funds, including Donors Trust and the Bradley Foundation, have fronted roughly a quarter of the money behind these efforts, according to tax documents, while the balance has come from anonymous individual donors. 

Bragdon’s staff includes veterans of conservative administrations in Kansas and Texas, as well as advocates for overhauling welfare whom Bragdon met as the head of the right-wing Maine Heritage Policy Center and later as an adviser to LePage in the late aughts.

Over a decade in and around the Maine statehouse, Bragdon and a cohort of young conservatives gained a reputation for outraging the other side of the aisle. Under LePage, Maine placed a five-year time limit on cash welfare benefits and reinstated full SNAP work requirements for able-bodied adults.

“I remember them as a pack of inexperienced, activist right-wingers that went crazy on welfare reform,” said Cynthia Dill, a former liberal state senator who clashed with Bragdon and other future FGA staffers. “It galled me that they had no expertise whatsoever in health and human services but were appointed to places of power by the LePage administration.”

Since leaving Maine, Bragdon has sought to export many of the state’s policies. The FGA developed model state legislation, dubbed the HOPE Act, which bars states from seeking federal waivers from SNAP’s work rules. The bill has been introduced in 16 states since 2016 and passed in Kansas, Mississippi and Wisconsin. The FGA says elements of the bill have been adopted in 28 states.

The FGA also refers activist social service administrators to positions in Republican administrations, a service it advertises on its “FGA Talent Bank” as part of its work to overhaul welfare.

And it has churned out a steady stream of infographics, opinion polls and first-person videos to promote its policies, many trumpeting a 2016 FGA study from Kansas that claimed that the reinstatement of SNAP work requirements prompted thousands of unemployed Kansans to get jobs and more than doubled their average incomes.

The study, while much promoted by Republicans, has been panned by both liberal and conservative economists for cherry-picking data. Among other issues, the paper reports outcomes only from former food stamp recipients who found jobs after they lost benefits, said Jeffrey Grogger, an applied microeconomist at the University of Chicago who has studied welfare.

Grogger also said the paper fails to establish a direct relationship between the welfare policy changes and outcomes for recipients. Most welfare recipients obtain jobs and leave the program anyway, he said, regardless of work requirements.

And he said the paper is at odds with the scientific literature, which has largely found that such rules do not greatly improve recipients’ incomes and may even hurt them.

In addition to the Kansas study, House Republicans have distributed an FGA analysis of three-year-old U.S. Department of Agriculture data that breaks down the number of unemployed, able-bodied SNAP recipients by state. A Washington Post review of more recent USDA data suggests that the current figures on food stamp recipients are lower than the FGA has claimed.

The group has also circulated polling numbers suggesting that almost all Americans support stricter work requirements, but those figures have been faulted by observers like Peter Germanis, a conservative economist who served in the Reagan and Bush administrations, for oversimplifying  public opinion and the available evidence.

“Work requirements should be based on credible evidence and attention to policy details — the exact opposite of what FGA produces,” Germanis tweeted May 17. “Sad that so many politicians fall for their ‘junk science.’ ”

In an interview, Bragdon defended his team’s analysis, saying other researchers are free to use “different approaches.” The FGA's poll results are in line with those conducted by other groups, he said. And the FGA prepared its state-by-state analysis last year, before the most recent data was available.

Bragdon said he is “proud” of his group's research, which he has pushed to get in front of as many lawmakers as possible. The FGA specializes in slick policy one-pagers, which — with their color-coded headlines and catchy graphics — appear to owe a debt to Bragdon’s brother, Trevor, a behavioral scientist who has worked with the FGA and specializes in “persuasive branding” for conservative causes.

One of Trevor Bragdon’s employees, Sam Adolphsen, is currently on loan to the foundation, where he carries the title “senior fellow” and recently testified about SNAP before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The FGA’s emphasis on policy messaging and marketing has, experts said, differentiated the group from traditional think tanks.

“FGA isn’t doing much ‘thinking,’ in the traditional sense,” said Jim McGann, the director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania. “But they market policy. They push, repackage and franchise other people’s ideas for implementation.”

On the farm bill, the FGA mobilized in a huge way to support the Republican plan, canvassing lawmakers’ offices and churning out a stream of widely disseminated “one-pagers” designed to deflect both liberal and tea party criticisms.

An April strategy email to House Republicans from GOP leadership included four one-pagers, as well as four FGA videos and 50 graphics featuring FGA's SNAP recipient estimates. On Wednesday, Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) published a strongly worded defense of the plan, exclusively citing FGA research. A day earlier, Ryan appeared in an FGA video touting the value of work.

The FGA was focused on funneling data to lawmakers, said  Kristina Rasmussen, who lobbies for Opportunity Solutions Project, the FGA's advocacy arm. She drove 12 hours from her home in Illinois this week to field Republicans' questions about the work requirement plan.

On Monday, Rasmussen was optimistic that the measure would pass.

“We’re talking to everybody: leadership, rank and file, Main Street, the Freedom Caucus,” Rasmussen said. “There are no doors closed to us, in part because of our reputation as a group that works hard, really cares about this issue and has good, resourced information.”

Correction: The story has been corrected to remove an economist's comment that the FGA's study did not track all relevant welfare recipients. The study did track them but did not report outcomes for all of them. 

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