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House GOP Effort to Kill Social Services Block Grant Should Be Cautionary Tale

April 14, 2016: This post has been updated to reflect the number of people receiving SSBG-funded services.

The House Republican effort, in its 2017 budget, to eliminate the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG) should serve as a cautionary tale — with lots at stake for millions of Americans — in light of Republican proposals also to convert Medicaid and SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) into block grants.

That’s because House Republicans are now criticizing SSBG for the very features — flexibility and minimal red tape — that they once claimed as virtues.  What will happen, we wonder, if SNAP and Medicaid become flexible block grants with minimal red tape; would Republicans later attack those new block grants in the same way?

Here’s the story:

Back in 1981, President Reagan persuaded lawmakers to consolidate a host of federal programs into a smaller number of block grants to states, including SSBG.  The President argued that states should receive increased flexibility to use the new block grant funding to meet their specific needs.  While enabling states to better serve their constituents, proponents argued, block grants would reduce “red-tape” requirements.

“We will… convert a number of categorical grant programs into block grants,” the President told a joint session of Congress in February 1981, making the case for his new budget plan, “to reduce wasteful administrative overhead and to give local governments and states more flexibility and control.”

Not surprisingly, states since 1982 have used SSBG funds in a wide variety of ways to help people become more self-sufficient — such as by providing child care assistance; preventing and addressing child abuse; and supporting community-based care for the elderly and disabled.  Although existing federal grants provide funding for states for those specific purposes, SSBG may supplement the existing programs and also may address needs that fall between the cracks of existing programs.  Roughly 28 million people a year — about half of them children — receive services that SSBG funds in whole or in part.

Today’s House Republican lawmakers, however, apparently take a dimmer view of the flexibility that the President and Congress granted SSBG in 1981.  In 2011, in their first budget after regaining control of the House, they called for SSBG’s repeal, citing excessive state discretion.  And, as their most recent budget makes clear, they haven’t changed their tune.  House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady recently called SSBG a “no-strings-attached slush fund for states with no accountability” when his committee approved legislation to repeal it.  This repeal would come after decades of neglect by policymakers.  As we have noted, SSBG funding has already fallen 73 percent since policymakers block-granted it in 1981, after accounting for both funding cuts and inflation.

Along with eliminating SSBG, House Republicans propose to convert Medicaid and SNAP into block grants and limit their annual funding, with more than $150 billion in SNAP cuts over ten years and $1 trillion in Medicaid cuts over ten years — above and beyond their proposed repeal of the Medicaid expansion under health reform.  Tellingly, House Republicans are citing the advantages of state flexibility as part of their rationale for block-granting SNAP and Medicaid.

Their proposed cuts to SNAP and Medicaid are deeply disturbing in and of themselves: they would force states in the coming years to reduce benefits, throw millions of beneficiaries off the rolls, or both.  And in the context of a block grant, “flexibility” includes state discretion to deny the basic levels of nutrition and health care that beneficiaries are currently guaranteed.  Beyond that, though, block-granting those two programs also could set the stage for future criticism, in which certain lawmakers argue that the new SNAP and Medicaid block grants lack accountability and, consequently, should face even deeper cuts.

Both in 1981 and today, Republicans have touted state flexibility as a key reason to block-grant programs that assist the neediest.  But as SSBG’s history shows, when states actually use their flexibility, lawmakers can later argue that block grants constitute “slush funds” that lack “accountability,” justifying a call for still bigger cuts.