House Speaker Paul Ryan called again today for combining many safety net programs into a mega-block grant to states. As we explained when he made essentially the same proposal last year, this would very likely increase poverty and hardship, not reduce them.
Ryan’s 2014 “Opportunity Grant” proposal would consolidate 11 programs — from SNAP (formerly known as the Food Stamp Program) to housing vouchers, child care, and the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) — into a single block grant. Though Ryan didn’t provide all the precise details behind his speech, he seems to have in mind something identical or very similar to his 2014 proposal. Our examination of that proposal found:
While Ryan described the proposal as maintaining the same overall funding as the current system for each participating state, that would be a practical impossibility. His proposal would convert SNAP, the nation’s basic food assistance safety net, from an entitlement that responds automatically to increased need, such as during recessions, into part of a sweeping block grant that gives each state fixed funding for the year and, thus, can’t respond in the same way. This would be a particularly serious problem when need rises, such as during economic downturns or when states or localities experience events such as plant closings.
While Ryan suggested addressing the problem by adjusting annual state grant amounts to reflect changes in state unemployment rates, that’s not an adequate solution. The block grant levels would be set at the start of the year, likely using unemployment data already several months old. Moreover, poverty and need rise or fall for reasons that go well beyond the unemployment rate.
While Chairman Ryan says he’s driven by evidence and research, his plan would jeopardize basic nutrition assistance for poor children, which research has shown reduces child malnutrition and improves children’s long-term prospects. A path-breaking recent study examined what occurred after food stamps gradually expanded nationwide in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It found that poor children with access to food stamps in early childhood (and whose mothers had access during pregnancy) had an 18-percentage-point higher high school graduation rate — and were less likely as adults to have stunted growth or heart disease or to be obese — than comparable children who lacked access to food stamps because their counties hadn’t yet implemented the program.
The Ryan plan would jeopardize these crucial gains by eliminating poor families’ entitlement to SNAP. Unlike under SNAP’s current structure, families that qualified for the program because of their low incomes might be denied benefits or put on a waiting due to lack of program funding, either because need had increased or because the state had shifted funding to other purposes.