A Ryan Poverty Plan Skeptic: W.’s Faith-Based Organization Chief

Representative Paul Ryan’s Opportunity Grant proposal, party of the sweeping new anti-poverty plan he announced a couple weeks ago, may be equal parts policy solution and policy problem. The “OG” is essentially a block grant that would allow states to combine the funding they currently get for a range of anti-poverty programs (cash welfare, food stamps, heating assistance, etc.) and design their own plans to accomplish the same goals, pending the feds’ approval and subject to ongoing oversight and assessment. (Ryan’s plan also includes reforms for the EITC, prison sentences, education, and more.)

In the plan, Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, sets out a vision for how an OG might work: Local and community providers will administer a large portion of the aid that the federal government currently controls, and could pair beneficiaries with caseworkers, who would take an active role in meeting beneficiaries’ needs and setting up contracts that would require certain accomplishments in exchange for benefits. But John Dilulio, who served as the director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives during the Bush administration, thinks this approach may not work nearly as well as imagined.

In theory, pointed, individualized aid and distribution through community providers is a great idea. But transferring much of the aid-administering capacity of the federal government to states (where, it’s worth noting, a lot of such authority already resides) and then ultimately to private organizations crafting individual contracts could create an administrative nightmare and cause government swell even more, making it harder to produce and measure results.

Dilulio, a Democrat, left his post at the Bush White House in 2001 after just six months, disillusioned by what he felt was the administration’s lack of interest in enacting reforms that fit the bill of Bush’s promised compassionate conservatism. Dilulio said he considered 2001’s Community Solutions Act a political maneuver that reflected none of the “actual empirical evidence that recommended policies promoting greater public/private partnerships involving community-serving religious organizations.”

Eleven years after leaving the White House, Dilulio argued in a National Affairs essay that emphasizing community partnerships and state responsibility can simply make government bigger, and likely less capable, than ever:

This . . . attitude has yielded an even bigger state than we likely would have if Americans had simply and openly approved a large and ever-expanding government. . . . The use of sub-national civil servants, private contractors, and non-profit grantees to carry out federal laws — a practice surely intended to restrain the size of government — has instead inflated the state and given rise to four sets of perverse, if unintended, consequences.

Discussing Ryan’s plan with NRO, Dilulio said it’s unlikely that the states can administer these programs more effectively than the federal government. “If you look at the history of this last half century,” he said, “to date, these promises have never come true. They have never come to fruition, under Democrats or Republicans.”

One of the ideas behind Ryan’s proposal is that states can better meet the needs of certain communities, demographic groups, or localities by contracting with community providers. Dilulio says religious groups and other nonprofits do have latent capacity to do this type of work, but the devil is in the details.

One major problem arises when trying to effectively evaluate the outcomes of these providers, which could need varying success metrics and require unique oversight. This persists at the federal level, since each state would work with the federal government to craft its own goals and be assessed in its own ways. Without uniform standards, which wouldn’t make sense, it would be difficult to ensure that aid is distributed equally across the country or to compare outcomes of different states and different communities. (Ryan has, however, proposed a new center for evidence-based policy making, and promises to support rigorous research on whatever new methods states come up with — randomized trials within states, for instance, could be possible.)

Who would be charged with oversight and measurement? Ryan says there would be third-party assessments, but Dilulio suggests it would likely be left to an army of state and federal bureaucrats — individuals and agencies who all have their own interests and agendas.

And devolving functions would also increase the layers of bureaucracy and costs involved, Dilulio suggests. He mentions Pennsylvania’s Summer Food Service Program, a federal program intended to replace the nutrition kids get during the school year from free or subsidized lunches, to illustrate how complicated tracking aid and its impacts can be. The program is funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which gives the money to the state of Pennsylvania, which then distributes the money to three major cities in Pennsylvania, which pass it on to Pennsylvania school systems, which give it to individual schools, which then work with any number of local providers.

This money changes hands five times before finally being translated into lunches for kids. And after that, it’s hard to be sure that the community providers are using the funds efficiently and providing a quality service. That’s just one, ancillary program.

But successful outcomes from approaches like the Opportunity Grant are not impossible, Dilulio says. He thinks Ryan should offer more specific ideas for how to run the OG better than previous attempts to devolve and privatize programs. “Behind 73 pages, do Representative Ryan or his staff have a plan for translating old ideas into new and better form?” he asks.

For now, the answer seems to be no, understandably – Ryan’s plan is only an outline, and the Opportunity Grant is one piece, albeit a big one, of a much larger plan. As the proposal moves forward and Ryan shakes out the details, it may become clearer if he has plans for how to make local and private aid delivery more feasible than it has been in the past.

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