Vice President for Family Income Support Policy
The “Welfare to Work Projects” proposal in President Trump’s budget would facilitate the unraveling of major federal programs that help low- and moderate-income people meet basic needs. It appears to let states and localities undertake a large-scale redesign of an unnamed number of basic assistance programs, with apparently few protections for individuals who need the assistance these programs provide to make ends meet. Although the budget includes few details on the initiative, it follows the broad theme of past congressional “superwaiver” proposals and of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s “Opportunity Grant” and “A Better Way” proposals.
Previous proposals would let states merge funding from core safety net programs that help individuals and families meet basic needs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), federal housing programs, job training, and child care programs. With the funding merged, states typically would have the power to use the funds for a broad set of activities, with few protections for individuals and families who need assistance.
Under this initiative, states could weaken or undermine federal policies and protections that Congress has established for low-income programs, opening the door to state policies that fill state budget holes rather than aid low-income families. States could divert funding from basic assistance for needy families to other budget areas, as they’ve done with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant; TANF’s broad state flexibility has let states take federal funds formerly devoted to helping people meet basic needs and use them to substitute for other state spending — thereby freeing up state funds for other uses that may be unrelated to addressing poverty or helping low-income families, such as cutting taxes or closing budget holes for programs targeted to less needy families.
Even when states don’t use this sweeping flexibility to pad, or fill holes in, other parts of their budgets, their flexibility can leave impoverished families and children without important assistance. That’s because under these types of proposals, states typically have flexibility to take money from basic assistance that helps families buy food or pay rent and use it for a set of services that may be useful for some families but generally don’t help families afford the basics and make ends meet. These proposals also can let states shift assistance from the poorest families to families with modest incomes that are significantly better off (and are considered more politically significant by state politicians) than deeply poor families.
Ultimately, these schemes can amount to little more than a shell game. Rather than identifying areas that need additional resources — like job training, child care, or services for families facing substance use disorders — and funding them, federal policymakers can give states new flexibility and then claim that they’ve freed up substantial new resources for those services. In reality, such proposals simply let states finance services or programs that may or may not be effective in the long run by cutting basic food and housing assistance that low- and moderate-income families need, all under the guise of flexibility and innovation.
These kinds of proposals start from the faulty premise that the safety net is ineffective in reducing poverty. But strong evidence shows that government economic security programs such as food assistance and housing subsidies keep millions of people out of poverty and also improve children’s long-term education and health outcomes. In 2014, SNAP lifted 8.4 million people above the poverty line and rent subsidies lifted 4 million people above it. (These figures use the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which accounts for taxes and non-cash benefits and corrects for underreporting in government surveys.) An increasing number of studies find longer-term benefits from key low-income assistance programs, including helping children to do better in school and increase their earning power in their adult years.
The Trump budget proposal is billed as a demonstration project that will be rigorously evaluated, but that doesn’t lessen its troublesome nature. Once programs are dismantled, even poor evaluation results won’t prove sufficient to convince policymakers to restore them to their original structure. The Trump proposal has a different name than similar earlier proposals, but that doesn’t alter its intent or likely damaging consequences: it’s another proposal that would make life harder for large numbers of low-income families and individuals by undermining the economic support programs on which they depend to put food on the table and a roof over their heads and to get ahead by improving their education and skills.