Politics & Policy

Poor-Mouthing The Bush Budget

For many liberals, the poor are a line item.

After baseball, President Bush’s favorite sport is beating up on the poor. Or so we are told by critics of the new Bush budget. New York Times hyperventilator Paul Krugman recently wrote, “It may sound shrill to describe President Bush as someone who takes food from the mouths of babes …” then, of course, went on to so describe him. Bush has not yet been seen swiping Gerbers from babies at any campaign event, nor does his budget effectively do the same.

Critics say Bush wants to deny food stamps to 300,000 hungry people and child care to another 300,000 deprived kids. These charges are baldly oversimplified and rather rich coming from the same people who oppose extending the most successful anti-poverty program in the past 30 years–the 1996 welfare-reform law. For many liberals, the poor apparently exist only to be a line item in the federal budget, where they should be left undisturbed by any strenuous effort to end their soul-killing dependence on government.

The administration’s budget proposes tightening up eligibility for food stamps. When the 1996 welfare reform created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, food-stamp eligibility was extended to anyone receiving any TANF-funded service. This includes activities reaching people who have earnings that exceed the traditional food-stamp eligibility requirement of a gross annual income less than 130 percent of the poverty line. According to the Office of Management and Budget, some states make anyone receiving even a TANF-funded pamphlet eligible for food stamps.

The administration wants to restore the old eligibility requirement. The $36 billion a year spent on food stamps would be reduced in 2006 by $57 million. If this is class warfare, it’s not exactly “shock and awe.”

Both food stamps and child-care spending–which the administration wants to hold steady–should properly be considered together with welfare reform and the effort to renew it.

Food stamps itself could use reform. It has all the worst features of the old pre-reform welfare, fostering the long-term dependence of nonworking single parents. According to Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, half of food-stamp aid goes to recipients who have been on the program for 8.5 years or more. Of the aid that goes to families, roughly 85 percent goes to single-parent homes. Adding a work requirement to food stamps for the able-bodied could have the same catalytic effect as the 1996 welfare reform, which reduced dependence, child poverty and out-of-wedlock births.

Congressional Republicans have wanted to reauthorize and strengthen the 1996 welfare reform for three years now, but Democrats have blocked them. Notably, Republicans have proposed spending $1 billion more over the next five years on child care. By blocking the bill, Democrats have therefore effectively said “no” to $200 million of additional day-care spending every year for the past three years. Who’s keeping deprived kids off day care now?

Welfare reform relates to child-care spending in another way. As the 1996 reform decreased dependence and the amount of money spent on cash welfare benefits, more funds were available to be redirected into child care. According to a Heritage Foundation analysis, federal and state spending on child care increased from $3.2 billion in 1996 to $11 billion in 2002. Two-thirds of the new spending came from funds freed up by welfare reform, in an implicit bargain that said, “We won’t pay you not to work, but we will pay to support your working.”

Renewing welfare reform now is so necessary because the work requirements from 1996 have become obsolete. States are no longer required to do much to encourage recipients to work. Meanwhile, very little has been done to attack the welfare problem at its root–single parenthood–by encouraging marriage. The 1996 reform helped slow the rate of out-of-wedlock births, suggesting more effort here could have results. But realizing the necessity of strengthening welfare reform requires viewing the poor as more than a federal line item.

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.

(c) 2004 King Features Syndicate

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