Politics & Policy

Our Welfare System Needs Serious Disruption

White House budget director Mick Mulvaney at a press briefing in January 2018. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
The Trump administration’s government-reorganization plan won’t do the trick.

President Trump’s supporters have long argued that we should overlook his manifest flaws because he is a “disrupter,” and God knows there are more than a few institutions in Washington that could use a little disruption. Of course, as the misery and chaos on our southern border show, disruption can have a downside. But time after time, on occasions when disruption is desperately needed, the Trump administration has blinked.

The latest example is the administration’s proposal, unveiled last week, to restructure our bloated and sclerotic welfare system. Nearly everyone across the ideological spectrum agrees that our efforts to fight poverty could use some disruption. Currently, the federal government administers over 100 anti-poverty programs, more than 70 of which provide benefits, whether cash or in-kind, to families and individuals. Opaque, duplicative, and often lacking oversight and accountability, these programs ill-serve both recipients and taxpayers to the tune of more than $1 trillion per year.

Yet, faced with both the need and the opportunity for genuinely radical disruption, the Trump administration brought forth a plan that mostly amounts to a cosmetic reorganization of the federal government. Spearheaded by Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director, the plan is surprisingly timid in light of what could have been.

Mulvaney’s proposal would unify administration of welfare programs that are currently scattered among at least nine cabinet departments and six independent agencies under the purview of the Department of Health and Human Services, which would be renamed the Department of Health and Public Welfare. Among the most prominent of these programs would be food stamps (SNAP) and WIC.

Community-development programs, meanwhile, would be shifted from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to the Department of Commerce. Rural-housing and rental-assistance programs would move from the Department of Agriculture to HUD, the Education Department would merge with the Labor Department to create a new Department of Education and the Workforce, and so on and so forth.

In fairness, the changes would constitute more than just a bailout of Washington sign-makers. They would establish a much more logical chain of command and accountability, marking a first step toward standardized cross-program regulations governing everything from eligibility to work requirements. A new Council on Public Assistance would coordinate between agencies and have tie-breaking authority in interagency or interdepartmental disputes. The reform plan also would establish procedures to expedite waivers and increase state flexibility.

The reorganization could also have a meaningful impact on congressional appropriations by breaking up the entrenched log-rolling that so often preserves program funding regardless of effectiveness. For example, food stamps and other nutrition programs have long been immune to reform because of an unholy alliance of urban Democrats and Republicans beholden to farming interests. Moving food stamps out of the Agricultural Department, and therefore the farm bill, would disrupt that alliance’s efforts to protect the program.

Overall, the administration’s proposal is likely to make the welfare bureaucracy more efficient, which is no small thing. It is expected to benefit both welfare recipients and taxpayers. Yet the welfare state remains firmly in place, and reorganizing the bureaucracy that supports it would do little to change the tired anti-poverty strategy of throwing endless amounts of money at the problem. Genuinely effective approaches, from criminal-justice reform to enhanced school choice, remain on the back burner.

For the Disrupter-in-Chief, this looks remarkably undisruptive.

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