BEYOND THE NUMBERS
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan left the impression today that his proposed Opportunity Grant will allow low-income individuals to get income assistance as well as help they may need to go to school, get off drugs, and succeed in the workplace. That picture, however, doesn’t reflect the reality of his proposal.
Chairman Ryan spoke eloquently this morning about “Andrea,” a single mother who needs income assistance in the near term, help finding a job, assistance so she can go to college, and help paying for child care for her two young children while she works and attends school so she can reach her dream of becoming a teacher and climb into the middle class. He implied that his Opportunity Grant would deliver the package of supports she needs to succeed.
In fact, under Chairman Ryan’s plan, neither Andrea nor anyone else would be guaranteed any assistance. This means that Andrea could apply for services and be told that she cannot get any help. Chairman Ryan doesn’t acknowledge that scenario.
To be sure, many kinds of assistance already are limited so that not everyone who’s eligible for assistance gets it — with one important exception. Today, all eligible poor households can get help to buy groceries through SNAP (formerly food stamps), a form of income assistance that not only helps those households put food on the table but can free up resources so that families — not caseworkers — can decide how to direct their limited incomes. Chairman Ryan’s plan would no longer guarantee that basic safety net.
And, nothing in Chairman Ryan’s proposal would make it more likely that families in Andrea’s situation would receive that full package of supports unless other needy individuals and families receive significantly less help. Indeed, states already have flexibility to use Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, which provides basic income assistance to poor families with children) to put together precisely this package of benefits. But TANF’s flexibility does not trump its limited resources, and that’s why many single mothers like Andrea can’t get the help they need to make ends meet, find work, go to school, and ensure that their children are safe and well cared for while they juggle work and school.
Today, just 25 of every 100 poor families receive TANF assistance, only 1 in 7 low-income children who qualify for help paying for child care receives it; and just 1 in 4 low-income households that qualify for help paying for housing get it.
Also of note, the service provider structure that Ryan envisions almost surely would require more staff and, thus, would generate higher administrative costs, leaving less funding for assistance and services.
In short, the only way that Chairman Ryan’s plan can provide more assistance, targeted or not, to families like Andrea’s is if some poor households receive significantly less help, with cuts likely coming in help to pay for food and housing — the two largest programs that Ryan would consolidate under the Opportunity Grant.
The case of “Steven,” whom Ryan also highlights, makes the point as well. A single 19-year-old non-custodial father, Steven is jobless and needs help to get off drugs. Ryan’s proposal indicates that the Opportunity Grant would help him get drug treatment, move him into transitional housing (a form of subsidized housing), and get him help with attending parenting classes, finding work, and pursuing further education.
These are all needed services, and limited funding keeps many people, particularly adults not living with children and who have the same needs as Steven, from obtaining that help. But the Opportunity Grant structure would not provide additional resources (and as my colleague Robert Greenstein points out, could well provide fewer resources), so the only way to provide this richer set of supports for Steven is to cut the help that other families receive.
Chairman Ryan skirts this fundamental math. Consolidating funding streams into a single “opportunity” grant allows him to say that individuals like Andrea and Steven will get a better-targeted suite of supports without saying which families will get less help and how that will affect them.