The Agenda

The Deep South and the Limits of Anti-Poverty Federalism

Among conservatives, there is a widespread conviction that state governments are better suited to running anti-poverty programs than the federal government. If anti-poverty programs did little more than cut checks to all households, irrespective of income or work participation, they could be run without too much difficulty from Washington. To the extent they impose means tests and work requirements, however, beneficiaries need to be monitored to ensure that they remain eligible, and this monitoring is most effectively done by local officials. If anti-poverty programs seek to do more than just alleviate the symptoms of poverty — if they involve tailor-made skill-enhancement efforts that aim to increase the earning potential of low-income adults, for example – local knowledge becomes even more important.

So does that mean the case is closed: decentralization should obviously win the day? Not necessarily. Much depends on the extent to which you trust the state officials to whom you have assigned the responsibility of running anti-poverty programs. Even if it’s true that state and local officials have an advantage over federal officials when it comes to providing low-income households with high-quality services tailored to local conditions, this won’t mean very much if state and local officials shirk their duty to offer such services. One might object that state and local officials have no good reason to shirk their duties, as they have to bear the cost, or rather much of the cost, associated with ineffective policies. Yet this discounts the possibility that the majority population in a given jurisdiction might be indifferent, or even hostile, to the health and well-being of various minorities. And if these minorities are overrepresented in the ranks of low-income households, you have a serious problem on your hands.

I’ve just sketched out the reason many liberals are skeptical about devolution — they believe that some states, and in particular states in the Deep South, have governing majorities that don’t care enough about poor blacks to be trusted with greater responsibility over anti-poverty efforts. Jamelle Bouie, to his credit, acknowledges that this distrust compels a tradeoff:

In a real sense, this is taking safety net programs out of the hands of voters (or at least, voters who participate in state government elections), and shifting power toward bureaucrats in Washington, which will come with real tradeoffs in responsiveness and accountability.

Yet he posits another tradeoff as well:

The more autonomy you grant to individual states in anti-poverty policies, the less coverage there is to low-income Americans. … On a whole constellation of issues, federalism has its place. But when it comes to sending help to poor people, let’s set it aside.

Though I’m far lessenthusiastic than Bouie is about the Obamacare Medicaid expansion, he makes a compelling point, which we’ve often discussed. Elected officials have constituencies — the people they represent or govern and narrower electoral constituencies — the voters who actually put them in office. In the Deep South, Republican elected officials have electoral constituencies that consist largely of white voters earning above-average incomes, and which are largely devoid of low-income blacks. Republican governors in the region preside over large numbers of low-income uninsured people, but most of them fall outside of their electoral constituencies. I believe that state governments can find better ways to meet the needs of the low-income uninsured than through expanding Medicaid. Yet I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the states where we’ve seen conservative lawmakers try to tackle this problem are states where the electoral constituencies of conservative lawmakers are diverse, e.g., Florida. Let me put it this way: if states across the Deep South refused to expand Medicaid while also launching an ambitious effort to deploy existing resources to better meet the needs of low-income families, we’d be having a different, and more encouraging, political debate. 

It is also true, however, that racial disparities in the Deep South are not a new development. Yet legislative control in Mississippi and other Deep South states has been in the hands of Democrats for some time. And no, I’m not talking the distant past, when Dixiecrats ruled. Rather, I’m referring to the very recent past. The National Conference of State Legislatures tracks partisan control of state legislatures, and you’ll see that Republican control of the state legislature in Mississippi is actually a very recent development. Control of the Mississippi legislature flipped from Democrats to Republicans between January of 2011 and January of 2012. Democrats controlled Mississippi’s legislature throughout the 2000s and the 1990s. The same pattern holds for Alabama, where control flipped for Democrats to Republicans at roughly the same time. It’s possible that the state governments of Mississippi and Alabama proved far more at effective at fighting poverty, and at using federal funds, in the 1990s and 2000s and that the worm turned only when Republicans secured legislative control in both states. But one would have to make that case.

And as for the thesis that electoral constituencies are more politically salient than constituencies, it cuts in the opposite direction when Democrats are in charge. While Republicans tend to represent white voters with above-average incomes, Democrats in the Deep South represent a coalition that is heavily black and that disproportionately consists of voters with below-average incomes. Moreover, there were many influential black Democrats in Mississippi and Alabama with a great deal of seniority. Did the Democrats who controlled legislatures in the Deep South, black and non-black, play any role at all in the creation and governance of anti-poverty programs? It seems important not to neglect this part of the story. Bouie references the history of the region: “In keeping with their histories as low-tax, low-service states,” Bouie writes, ”places like Alabama and Mississippi have aimed for the minimum, providing as little as possible to poorer residents.” To be sure, Bouie’s point isn’t exactly a partisan one. It could be that it’s not just Republicans in the Deep South who can’t be trusted with anti-poverty efforts, but rather all elected officials in the Deep South, including the Democrats, including the African-American Democrats, who controlled the legislature until relatively recently. (It’s also true that Republicans proved more competitive in races for governor in recent decades, and governors have a great deal of power.) This seems like a dispiriting conclusion to draw, particularly for those of us who have at least some faith in the public-spiritedness of southern lawmakers. Though I would concede that southern policymakers of the past have much to answer for, it seems excessive to discount even the possibility that future southern policymakers will learn from the mistakes of the past. 

I should also note that Bouie misses some important things about Paul Ryan’s “Expanding Opportunity in America” proposal: 

Ultimately, the result of variation and flexibility for TANF has been a hodgepodge of programs across and within states. “[T]here is no national TANF program,” the Urban Institute pointed out, “but rather a different program in each state.” For as much as this might be desirable in some places, it also poses serious problems in others. “Its capped block grant structure,” a feature it shares with Rep. Paul Ryan’s anti-poverty proposals, “meant that federal funding did not go up with the increase in need as it did for SNAP and Medicaid. States, caught in a deep fiscal hole, were not able to increase their resources in response to need.” Our so-called laboratories of democracy weren’t there when people needed them the most.

If your goal is to enhance federalism and encourage state experimentation, these aren’t huge issues. It’s why block grants have been a recurring feature of Republican policy reform, from “Government for Tomorrow”—a 1965 pamphlet from the Republican Governors Association and the Ripon Society—to, again, the new plan from Ryan. (He calls them “opportunity grants.”) But this comes with clear disparities in state-to-state assistance—it’s far better to be poor in Massachusetts than North Carolina—and real weakness in the face of recessions.

The Ryan proposal explicitly addresses counter-cyclicality by offering a number of different options, including block grants that automatically adjust as unemployment increases. Moreover, states would only be allowed to take part in the Opportunity Grant program if they devised plans that meet fairly rigorous standards. States would have to devote considerable effort to crafting a plan, identifying metrics and third-party evaluators, etc., before being offered some (limited) flexibility in developing new approaches to fighting poverty. The effort wouldn’t be worth it for states that intended to do nothing. 

[A deeper disagreement, perhaps, is that Bouie believes that “poverty in Virginia doesn’t look that much different from poverty in New York, and there’s no need to pretend otherwise for the sake of federalism.” My reading is that there are in fact very significant differences between poor people in both states; the share of children living in households 200 percent or more below the poverty line is much higher (42 percent) in New York than it is in Virginia (33 percent); immigrant poverty is more prevalent in New York while rural poverty plays an outsized role in Virginia. It doesn’t strike me as absurd that these two states might want to pursue different anti-poverty strategies as a result.]

All that said, conservatives should take Bouie’s arguments about Mississippi to heart. Why haven’t we seen more policy innovation in Mississippi and elsewhere in the Deep South? And it would also be worthwhile to reflect on the role of the state’s African American lawmakers. In Alabama, former Gov. Bob Riley’s failed crusade to reform the state’s regressive tax code was defeated not just by opposition from powerful landowners and anti-tax activists, but by opposition from a significant segment (45 percent, according to an Auburn University survey) of the state’s black electorate, despite the fact that black Alabamians were likely to prove the biggest winners from the proposed reforms. One gets the impression that there’s more to politics in the Black Belt than bipolar racial conflict. But that’s a subject for another post.

David Frum has been thinking through an alternative to Ryan’s anti-poverty framework that relates to some of Bouie’s concerns, and I hope to devote attention to it in the near future. 

UPDATE: I revised this post while slowly emerging from my cold.


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