"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Cut Failed Social Programs

Regardless of how one feels about cutting government spending - whether to be unsparing in the elimination of all non-productive, and politically motivated programs and take blunt axe, chainsaw, and hatchet to them; or whether  the scalpel is a better instrument to cut only the wasteful bits, allowing the patient to survive – everyone agrees that some paring of the bloated national budget is necessary.  Given Congress’ total inability to act rationally, we will soon be over the Fiscal Cliff and into across-the-board spending cuts.  However, this won’t do the real job of assessing which programs are actually beneficial and which total wastes of money.  Gary MacDougal in the New York Times (10.11.12) writes about the staggering amount of money spent on social programs, many if not most of which have been un- or non-performing:

Each year, American taxpayers spend nearly $1 trillion trying to help the poor, according to a recent study by the Cato Institute. It’s easy to miss that headline number, though, because the money flows into and out of scores of federal, state and local government programs. In April, Michael D. Tanner, a senior fellow at Cato, a libertarian research group, compiled a list of 126 federal programs for low-income Americans, which together spend $668 billion of taxpayer money annually. State and local governments allocate an additional $284 billion, he estimated.

This is almost one trillion dollars a year spent with little evaluation and and scattershot oversight because there is little or no coordinated effort among the array of funding programs in the mix.  MacDougal offers an interesting alternative:

Consider a thought experiment: Divide $1 trillion by 46 million and you get around $21,700 for each American in poverty, or nearly $87,000 for a family of four. That’s almost four times the $23,050 per year federal poverty line for that family. It’s intriguing to think about converting all of this to a cash payment that would instantly lift everyone in poverty up to the middle class.

This, of course, is unthinkable for many reasons.  Social programs have been around for decades and must, in the minds of most liberals, continue.  It is the job of government, they argue, to distribute the country’s wealth from the rich to the poor with the goal of creating a more equitable society. While the goal may be laudable, the means are not. Insisting on government programs to help the poor and implementing programs designed by bureaucrats and ‘experts’ who claim to know better than the poor what they need is ignorant and patronizing at best.  Without a doubt many families would take their cash payments and squander it on drugs, alcohol, and fast women; but many others would see the cash as a way to finally take the first step up out of poverty.  Assuming that the poor simply do not have the judgment, reason, and ability to do so is a disgracefully elitist view.

For a variety of reasons, of course, this [cash transfer] is not possible, either logistically or politically. But a middle path might resemble what Mr. Ryan has proposed for Medicaid — converting the behemoth program to block grants for each state, an idea that in some ways parallels the successful welfare reform plan of the Clinton era.

There are middle-ground solutions, however, such as the block grant approach to Medicaid suggested by Paul Ryan, an approach with many advantages, one of which is that:

They allow regional governments to experiment with different ways of spending money with the same goal in mind, though it is very difficult to compare the results of such spending and reach a conclusion. A disadvantage is that the regional governments might be able to use the money if they collected it through their own taxation systems and spend it without any restrictions from above. (Wikipedia)

The block grant approach is opposed by ‘progressives’ who mistrust the states and their willingness and ability to distribute money fairly.  They are still living in the age of the Sixties when ‘States Rights’ was the Southern cry for segregation; and have not moved on to accept a devolution of government authority.  States can and do develop their own social programs as Governor Romney did in Massachusetts which exercised its sovereign rights, have relied on local voter support, and have crafted social legislation which was appropriate for their jurisdiction. Yet the ‘progressive’ fear of states overstepping their bounds a la anti-Civil Rights prevents any kind of local ingenuity and efficiency.  What these critics forget is that states can no longer defy Constitutional Law, and provisions are in place to prevent abuses of civil and human rights.

A study by the Institute for Educational Leadership, for example, identified 7 Senate committees and subcommittees, 11 House committees and subcommittees, 7 cabinet departments and 8 other agencies that had a hand in overseeing one antipoverty program or another.

Scattershot efforts are hobbled by bureaucracy and duplication, even as they let too many needy people slip through the cracks. The help most families need should be provided with a holistic one-stop approach at the local level.

These proposals to rightly devolve government programs to the states should be taken seriously.  The primacy and supremacy of the federal government must be challenged.  The patronizing approach the demeans states’ ability to generate, administer, and evaluate programs should end; and most importantly the arrogant, dismissive, and totally demeaning belief that individuals cannot be trusted with their own money must be jettisoned.

Most Americans understand that people enter poverty for many reasons and that we have an obligation to help them get out of it. A “conservative” path of just slashing budgets isn’t going to meet that obligation, but neither is the “liberal” path of embracing every program and spending more on each. We need a third way. The changes to spending on human services and Medicaid in Mr. Ryan’s budget proposal, if not a perfect template, could be a catalyst for starting the conversation.

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