The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Jeb Bush’s welfare reform plan would only make life worse for America’s poor

Jeb Bush in Columbia, S.C. on Saturday. (Sean Rayford/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Jeb Bush claims that, unlike that charlatan Donald Trump, he’s a proven political leader.

How has he chosen to illustrate such brave leadership? By joining the storied tradition of ducking responsibility for tough decisions.

Last Friday, Bush unveiled his grand welfare reform plan. He promises it will reduce waste, fraud and abuse while simultaneously empowering millions of poor people to stop being poor.

His magic formula: completely destroy established anti-poverty programs such as food stamps, cash welfare payments, rent subsidies and public housing. He’d then replace them all with “Right to Rise” grants (yes, named after his super PAC). These would be lump sums of federal money that states could apply for, assuming states would even be willing to create entirely new social safety nets out of whole cloth.

Bush isn’t the first to suggest this particular silver bullet — known as “block-granting” — for overhauling the social safety net.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has also advocated collapsing 11 federal anti-poverty programs into a mega-block grant to states. Other conservative leaders have proposed similar block grants for Medicaid and other programs.

Here’s the usual sell: These are bloated, wasteful, one-size-fits-all programs that hook Americans on the government teat. If only we handed the money directly to the states, poverty could be eradicated on the cheap. It’s win-win, for both makers and takers!

In reality, block-granting is just a way federal politicians can strip poor people of much-needed services without actually taking the blame for the resulting suffering.

Look, there's real appeal to letting the "laboratories of democracy" see if they can find more effective ways to deliver anti-poverty services. But states and localities already can engage in this kind of experimentation, and frequently do, by applying for regulatory waivers in federal programs such as Medicaid and food stamps. The federal government also gives separate grants to states and municipalities that want to launch innovative pilot projects.

“The idea that there’s no flexibility and you can’t experiment, that nobody can ever move anything one jot or tittle, is just completely wrong,” said Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank that studies poverty and the social safety net.

The real issue is that rooting out waste, fraud and abuse (actually pretty rare in programs such as food stamps) is really, really hard — especially if you want to avoid accidentally cutting off deserving children and families from food security, affordable health care and stable housing in the process. Federal politicians don't want to make the kinds of tough choices required for this cost-cutting, given the inevitable sob stories that will result.

So instead they just freeze spending and dump the responsibility for figuring out how to make do with less onto states. Not that states are any better equipped to make these decisions. But federal politicians nonetheless (quite literally) pass the buck anyway.

If history is any guide, block grants also make it easier for the feds to cut spending on the needy, regardless of whether the needy actually have reduced needs.

In recent decades, Washington has created 13 block-grant programs targeting low-income Americans. According to a recent Center on Budget and Policy Priorities study, in all but one case the program shrank substantially in inflation-adjusted terms. This happened despite initial assurances that block-grant programs would get the same funding as the programs being replaced.

Despite Bush's claims that he's targeting "failing, ineffective programs" for disposal, programs such as food stamps and Medicaid have a proven record of improving, and extending, the lives of poor children. And if empathy doesn't persuade you that preserving funding for these programs is worthwhile, perhaps macroeconomic concerns will.

One of the most underappreciated features of such anti-poverty programs is that they serve as "automatic stabilizers." That means spending on them rises when the economy is ailing, without Congress having to lift a finger. This is extraordinarily useful, since dollar for dollar, food stamps offer a bigger bang for the buck than just about any other tax or spending stimulus. It's very difficult to design block grants that would respond as nimbly to economic swings.

None of this is to suggest that our safety net is perfect, either in lifting up the impoverished or spending money efficiently. Many programs, for example, cut off benefits abruptly if workers earn too much, a work disincentive that could be addressed by phasing out benefits more gradually as incomes rise.

But just throwing up your hands and telling the states “I dunno, you fix it” isn’t leadership. It’s cowardice.

Read more about this issue here:

Jared Bernstein: Block granting SNAP (food stamps) would break a crucial anti-poverty program

Jared Bernstein: Calling Paul Ryan: History shows that block grants shrink over time

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Paul Ryan’s stale ideas on poverty

Jennifer Rubin: Reforming anti-poverty programs: Results and data matter