The Agenda

A Q&A with Robert Doar on Ryan’s Poverty Plan

Editor’s Note: Robert Doar is the Morgridge Fellow in Poverty Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where he studies and evaluates how free enterprise and improved federal policies and programs can reduce poverty and provide opportunities for vulnerable Americans. Before joining AEI, Doar was commissioner of New York City’s Human Resources Administration, where he administered twelve public-assistance programs for the largest local social-services agency in the United States, including welfare, food assistance, public health insurance, home care for the elderly and disabled, energy assistance, child-support-enforcement services, adult protective services, and domestic-violence assistance. He agreed to answer a series of questions about the federal anti-poverty plan Representative Paul Ryan introduced last week in an informal conversation. (And full disclosure: Andrew has spent the last eight weeks as Doar’s intern at AEI.)

Andrew Smith: One of the goals of the Opportunity Grant, Paul Ryan’s block-grant-with-strings-attached proposal to consolidate a number of federal poverty programs, is to give states more flexibility to use federal money to fight poverty, in innovative ways that take account of local conditions. But given the constraints facing state governments across the country, is it realistic to expect that state officials will even want this flexibility, or that they’ll be in a position to use it effectively?

RD: Well, the key thing about the flexibility is the merging of the funds, and I know for a fact that a lot of states have been talking about a variety of ways in which programs that get funding from multiple sources can work in a more coherent way together. Whether it’s sharing the data or doing combined case management, as it stands now, it’s more complicated than it needs to be in serving low-income Americans when you’ve got one entity doing housing, another doing food, another entity doing work, another entity doing child-support enforcement, another entity doing child care, another doing Medicaid. I think that that desire to approach a client or a problem in coherent, comprehensive way is out there.

Now, whether governors will be willing to take on the responsibility to go a step further and have the money all come to them in one unit is the real question. Are they willing to try something that’s completely different? I can’t say, but there’s definitely been a desire, and it’s well-documented, from state and local officials to do things in a more coherent way, merging case-management and data sets. This gives them an opportunity to merge money, and I definitely think there’s an element of interest in that, and it’s been out there for several years.

AS: Are there any states that you think would be first in line to take advantage of an Opportunity Grant? What are some of the poverty-fighting models that might emerge if the Opportunity Grant is embraced?

RD: Well, I think Governor Snyder in Michigan has been doing a lot of good stuff, and I think he may see an opportunity. And certainly Governor Kasich in Ohio and Governor Walker in Wisconsin — all three of them have a history of doing innovative things in social services.

And sometimes experimental efforts like this take place in smaller states where the critical mass is not as big, you might get governors from smaller states interested. I think the South Carolina governor, Nikki Haley, is interested in these sorts of things, and Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, too. But that’s an open question, and I don’t think they know enough about the details. Ryan’s announcement was just the beginning of the debate and the discussion.

I do have a worry that the bureaucrats within the states who are fully invested in individual funding streams may counsel governors that this is too hard, too difficult, too much change. And I hope that the governors fight against that because experimentation and being willing to do something different is the only way we’ll be able to make progress.

AS: We talked just a moment ago about the merging of funding streams, and you mentioned in the Q&A at AEI on Thursday with Chairman Ryan that putting SNAP into that one funding stream could be controversial. Is there still value in having it all in one funding stream?

RD: I think it’s okay, there’s a lot of details to be worked out. SNAP is huge, the second largest expenditure in anti-poverty programs, and I have some concerns with its effectiveness in helping people get to work and even in improving the nutritional intake of Americans. In order to make the Opportunity Grant program worthwhile, you need a lot of money, and SNAP provides a significant amount of funding, but the reason I raised it with Chairman Ryan is that it would be a dramatic change to a long-standing program that in some parts of America is viewed as extremely successful, and there are aspects of the program that have been successful. He’s offering a bold opportunity to do something dramatically different, and I was trying to highlight the fact that this is not a small change.

AS: Another aspect of the Opportunity Grant is that Ryan envisions that, in some cases, poor families will build long-term relationships with caseworkers, who will help them plan their financial future and who will set the conditions for assistance. What are the virtues and the potential pitfalls of this approach? Do state and local governments and the private organization Ryan hopes to engage have an adequate supply of people capable of doing this kind of work well?

RD: Well, that’s the big question. He does seem to have a significant amount of confidence in the ability of private or not-for-profit or even state or local officials to do a comprehensive case management really well.

To me, comprehensive case management for many recipients of assistance in New York City was really all about employment and jobs. The priority was enforcing an expectation that people are making every effort to move into employment, because you really can’t move to self-sufficiency unless you’re working. ‘

Now obviously I’m not talking about the disabled or elderly, and Ryan has a whole section in his paper about how they are separate and apart from this.

But for the able-bodied individuals who can work our programs need to be uniform in their emphasis on work, in my opinion. So if that’s what he’s talking about with the caseworkers, a really concerted effort to get people into employment, I think it’s great, and I think that’s something the groups you just talked about are capable of doing. That’s a straightforward, simple task, and if you make that your message it will be enormously beneficial to, in my opinion, a lot of people.

If on the other hand, it’s a fully loaded, holistic approach to correcting all of the issues facing the family or the individual, that is a question of capacity for anybody. And I agree with Representative Ryan that it’s certainly doable at the most local level, but the farther you get away from the person and the more you’re trying to run it from Washington or even from a state capital it gets much harder. I also think it’s probably better done in the not-for-profit or even for-profit or community-based environments than with government officials.

So he’s ambitious about comprehensive case management, but it’s something we need to really see what can be done. If he focuses very strongly on work, I think it can be successful. If it tries to do much, it may be less successful. 

AS: The personal contracts are a part of the Opportunity Grant that might be moving beyond employment and into a more comprehensive approach.  We’ve done something similar before: the Individual Responsibility Plans in TANF from the 1996 reform. Are these contracts different?

RD: No, and if that’s what they are, I support them. But I don’t think all the details have been spelled out. He needs to be conscious of the fact — and we all need to be –that in formulating these plans at the state level he might get a plan where they don’t focus on a contract like the ones that came out of the TANF legislation and instead would be something else.

The other thing is you used the phrase long-term — I thought he made a couple references that nobody picked up on to time-limiting it, and I think his plan may expect this assistance to be time limited. That is consistent with TANF — it has time-limiting — but not consistent with some of the other welfare programs. If he’s insisting on time-limits, that will be a change to programs like housing or food-stamp benefits.

AS: Critics on the left suggest that the idea of work requirements, responsibility contracts, and more can produce programs that are paternalistic and/or problematically countercyclical (in other words, they won’t expand to meet needs when the economy contracts). What do you say to either of those concerns?

RD: I guess I’d say I’m guilty of paternalism. I think that government does need to send messages to people receiving assistance and to set ground rules and standards. I think the absence of ground rules and standards contributes to dysfunction and poverty. There’s a very strong paternalistic aspect to the welfare-reform legislation, and I think that’s fine.

It all comes down to this: Americans will support programs that help people who are trying to get into employment or are working but at low wages. They are not comfortable with supporting programs that don’t move people toward employment and a lot of our assistance programs are not doing that right now and they need to be.

AS: So to our friends on the Left you’d say, in political terms, you’d have an easier time gaining support for safety-net programs if they come with work-requirements and the like?

RD: Absolutely. And I think they know that, and that’s why they go around telling everybody how much they love the EITC; that’s why they go around telling everybody how much they love food stamps, because they say it’s a work support (sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t). They know the political benefits. It’s a values thing, they know the consensus-building quality of assistance that’s tied to personal responsibility.

AS: How did what Ryan describes as the current “one size fits all” model for federal aid limit your ability to help poor individuals in New York? What might you have done differently if you had an Opportunity Grant at your disposal?

RD: Well, in the food-stamp program we could have, I think, done a little more to get people into work than we were allowed to do.

We also wanted to limit the use of food stamp benefits for the purchase of products that were clearly unhealthy. We might have been able to tailor the voucher aspect of food stamps a little more rigorously than the USDA allowed. (This came up in House testimony on Thursday, when a Republican from Louisiana said that it’s awful that people are buying all kinds of unhealthy products with government assistance that’s supposed to be about nutrition.)

We could have done some things in housing where we could have helped people move out of subsidized housing and free it up for people in more significant need. There’s a lot of things that we could have done and would have liked to do — child care is another one where there would’ve been greater options.

AS: What other ideas from the proposal need to be fleshed out or what are obstacles that stand in the way of this program’s feasibility? And what did Ryan leave out that going forward conservatives need to be thinking about?

RD: Well, the biggest obstacle is just bureaucratic inertia and fear of change and people’s unwillingness to even let states try something different. That’s well known politically. Another obstacle would be the complexity. There’s a lot here, and this does require effective government. You can’t do this out of your back pocket as a state trying to make this work. You have to have good people, who are dedicated, hardworking, and will stick to it, to be able to put this together at the state level and write proposals that get approved by the feds. Then you’ve got to make it happen.

So there’s a lot to be done before this is even close to being implemented. But those are the sort of things I worry about — it’s just a sort of “effectiveness quotient.” Do we have state administrations — and I think we do — that are willing to really take this on and see it through?

I think the most interesting thing is that he left Medicaid out. Medicaid is a very significant program, by far the biggest expenditure program for the poor, and I think there remain opportunities for cost savings in that program.

Republicans who worry about spending and debt — like me — should not be too upset that Ryan is proposing level funding for the programs his plan addresses. The assistance program that is really contributing by far the most fiscal damage is Medicaid. He left out Medicaid, I think, because he recognizes that he couldn’t commit to preserving funding levels for it because it’s unrealistic as a fiscal matter. Unless we address Medicaid’s spending trajectory, we won’t be able to address our fiscal problems. I think conservatives should acknowledge that and accept that, and then we can move forward from there. 


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