At the early Republican debate on Thursday evening among the candidates who didn’t get a slot in primetime, the hosts and candidates took time to talk about their concern that the country has a culture of dependency thanks to anti-poverty programs.
Fox News’s Martha MacCallum repeatedly asked the candidates how they would change this culture. “There is an increasing willingness in this country to accept assistance. How do you get Americans who are able to take the job instead of a handout?” she asked.
“Do you believe that we need to change the culture in this country in terms of whether or not we should be encouraging people to get off of it and take the job when it’s available?” she asked. “Some are able and not doing that.”
Santorum responded by describing his plan to engineer a manufacturing rebound and thus create more jobs through a flat tax. But then he brought up his plans for anti-poverty programs.
“You’re looking at the man who introduced and fought on the floor as a freshman senator and passed the Welfare Reform Act of 1996,” he said. “I ended a federal entitlement. Never been done before, never been done since.”
He went on to say that he would use that reform as a model for the country’s entire social safety net. “What we need to do is take the rest of the federal entitlements, not just welfare, but food stamps and Medicaid and housing programs and do the same thing we did with welfare,” he said. “Work requirements and time limits. That will change everything.”
Santorum is correct that modeling all anti-poverty programs after welfare reform, which led to what is today known as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, will change everything. The evidence can be found in what happened after reform passed in 1996. That bill turned the previous welfare program, which was a cost-sharing program in which the federal government gave states more money as demand and need increased, to a block grant where states get a set amount and wide latitude to design their own programs.
Because the amount of money given to the states to administer welfare hasn’t been updated since reform passed, its value has eroded as inflation has risen. So fewer and fewer eligible families are getting the assistance. In 1996, it reached 72 percent of poor families with children, the intended constituency. By 2012, it reached just 26 percent. And while poverty initially dropped after reform, two-fifths of families headed by a single mother lived in poverty by 2012. Deep poverty has also worsened since 1996: the number of families living on incomes that are below half of the poverty line has increased, and the number of families living on just $2 or less per person a day has risen sharply, particularly among people impacted by reform.
Part of why the program reaches fewer poor people is it lost the flexibility to expand when more people fall into hard times, such as during the Great Recession. The number of unemployed people jumped 88 percent between 2007 and 2011, but in a third of states the number of people on TANF actually dropped, and the rolls only ever rose 16 percent before declining again.
Food stamps, on the other hand, which Santorum wants to model after TANF, have been able to meet people in their time of need. During the same time period that TANF was struggling to keep up, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) rose 45 percent. As the economy has improved the number of people has dropped and the costs have started to come back down — though many people still need help feeding themselves and their families.
Other programs that have been block-granted have produced similar results to what happened to TANF. Of the 11 major block grant programs from recent decades, eight have shrunk, and some have been severe: Title 1 education funding for the disadvantaged fell 115 percent since it was created and the Social Services Block Grant fell 87 percent.
Republicans have proposed turning anti-poverty programs into block grants before, most recently in their budget proposals. But all it does is allow them cut the amount the government spends without having to specify exactly who will experience the effects of those cuts. It’s clear, however, that these changes would mean many people losing benefits. After Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) proposed block granting Medicaid and SNAP, it was estimated that between 14 million and 27 million people would lose Medicaid and potentially 10 million more would lose food stamps.
Santorum also explicitly called for instituting work requirements and time limits on these programs, which were also part of welfare reform. SNAP already has work requirements, however. Medicaid and housing assistance, on the other hand, don’t have them. But no other health coverage program requires recipients to work to get the benefit. Even so, the majority of Medicaid and housing assistance recipients already work, and those who don’t are usually disabled or elderly.