The Republicans have a problem: Their budget promises don't add up. They've committed to new tax cuts. They've proposed spending more on defense. They've promised they won't change retirement programs for the current generation of seniors. But they've also promised to cut the deficit, and fast.
That's left them with one option: deep cuts to programs for the poor. That's what you see in House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan's budget. It's the basis for the Romney budget. But cutting programs for the poor isn't popular. So Republicans have come up with a solution: Don't call them "cuts."
The Ryan budget's section on these cuts is titled "Repairing the Social Safety Net." It proposes to extend the welfare reform model to Medicaid, food stamps and other unnamed "low-income assistance programs." Romney's proposal is almost identical.
What we tend to think of as "welfare reform" includes a few distinct components. One is turning the funds for the program over to the states, called "block granting." Another requires beneficiaries to look for work.
Romney and Ryan's plans focus on block granting. In their proposals, the grants to states would grow much more slowly. Medicaid, for instance, would see its budget increase at the rate of inflation, not at the rate of health care costs. The question is whether these programs can spend much less without hurting the people who depend on them.
That's where welfare reform comes in. Conservatives see it as an example of a social policy reform that worked. Spending went down, poverty went down, and jobs went up.
But that was in the '90s, during a strong economy. The more recent evidence isn't good. In 1996, before welfare reform passed, 68 of 100 families living in poverty with children received welfare benefits. In 2010, two years into the worst economy since the Great Depression, only 27 of every 100 such families were receiving benefits. And that's not because they were all holding good jobs or because states had managed to make the grants go further. Quite the opposite.
Liz Schott, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, explains that states use about 30 percent of their block grants to fund basic assistance — what most of us would think of as "welfare." An additional 15 percent goes to subsidized child care. Eleven percent goes to work supports. And the other 44 percent? Miscellaneous other things, including closing state budget holes. The end result is that fewer families get welfare. That's not a "reform." It's a cut.
The New York Times looked at Arizona, which has cut its welfare caseloads in half since the recession. "The poor people who were dropped from cash assistance here, mostly single mothers, talk with surprising openness about the desperate, and sometimes illegal, ways they make ends meet," the story reported. "They have sold food stamps, sold blood, skipped meals, shoplifted, doubled up with friends, scavenged trash bins for bottles and cans and returned to relationships with violent partners — all with children in tow."
There's much to admire about welfare reform. In particular, the bill's authors were right that the safety net needed to do more to help people find and keep work. But as our workfare system has grown more robust, the traditional welfare system for those who can't find or keep work has eroded.
Which is all to say that cuts are cuts. Faced with welfare reform, states didn't do more with less. They did less with less. Fewer people are getting help through welfare and much of the money intended for them is being diverted to plug unrelated holes in state budgets. "Somebody has to eat it," says Ron Haskins, who helped Republicans draft the 1996 welfare reform law. "Someone's risk has to increase. The federal government, the state government or the people who get the benefit in the future."
You can argue that the money that used to fund welfare is better spent on other priorities, or that fewer Americans should have access to Medicaid and food stamps. That's the argument Republicans need to own up to making. Their proposal is to cut services in those areas to fund tax cuts, deficit reduction and defense spending. The Democrats' proposal is to raise taxes, cut defense spending and do somewhat less deficit reduction to protect programs for the poor and other government services. That's the choice voters face in 2012. There are no free lunches.
© 2012 Washington Post