Entitled semi-presidential candidate Jeb Bush released his plan today to eliminate “bloated, destructive” and “failing welfare programs,” apparently preferring to shift some of that bloatedness from the bellies of the poor to the bank accounts of the rich. The heart of his plan consists of eliminating the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, as well as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance program, Section 8 rental assistance, and public housing programs. To replace these much-needed programs, Bush proposes doling out fixed amounts of money to the states in so-called “Right to Rise,” essentially the block grants pioneered by Republican messiah Ronald Reagan, to use in assisting needy families however they see fit.
Any conservative proposal that claims it provides the “right” to something should immediately fall under scrutiny, and “Right to Rise” is no different. Besides the fact that it is little more than an effort by the intellectually bankrupt Bush to rehash Reagan and Gingrich’s block grants program, and is a product of the hypocritical and gratuitous Republican fetishizing of “the states,” such a program would be a horrible deal for America’s already struggling poor. His main gripe with these welfare programs is the stale and disproven Republican arguments that they foster a “culture of dependency” and are rife with fraud. The solution to these imaginary problems in Jeb’s mind? Cut the programs! Toss the baby out with the bathwater because your gut tells you the pristine water is poisoned!
Bush claims that his plan would “give states more flexibility” in providing welfare services, but the existing evidence of the 1996 welfare reform has shown that converting welfare programs to block grants reduces services to the poor. For example, since TANF was created at that time to replace more specific welfare programs, the same Republicans who are supposedly to eager to help the poor have prevented any increase in the fixed cash grants to the states, meaning that the real value of the grants has declined 28% since TANF was implemented. This, combined with the fact that states are incentivized to reduce the welfare rolls to free up resources, means that fewer and fewer people are receiving assistance: while welfare reached 72% of poor families with children in 1996, that number has since declined precipitously to about 26% today.
Indeed out of 11 major welfare programs that have been block-granted, 8 have declined in size, often dramatically: Title I education grants have declined 115%, the Social Services Block Grant has declined 87%, the Training and Employment Services Block Grant has fallen by 60%, and on and on in a grim accounting of Republicans’ abandonment of the poor in the name of their precious “free enterprise.” A report on Paul Ryan’s similar proposal to block grant SNAP estimates that it would cut the program by about $137 billion over a decade and force millions off of assistance at a time when hunger is increasing at an alarming rate across the nation and a staggering 14% of Americans are food insecure.
Jeb’s plan also proposes eliminating federal housing assistance programs, both Section 8 subsidies and public housing programs, which despite their well-documented failures have been a boon to millions of impoverished Americans and serve a need that Bush’s more market-driven approach has repeatedly proven itself to be incapable of fulfilling. Indeed Jeb’s plan leaves open the possibility of eliminating these welfare programs altogether in favor of, presumably, a for-profit free for all that would approximate the tremendous disaster that is our nation’s healthcare system. His proposal says that “the grants will not be open-ended entitlements to states. Instead, states will be required to meet certain conditions before they qualify for grants.”
Chief among these “conditions” is promoting marriage, and indeed Jeb says that he will “promote marriage as the most reliable route to family resources” and seek to “re-establish the societal norm of two active and consistent parents.” Promoting “family values” as a euphemism for assaulting anyone who doesn’t fit their anachronistic worldview is nothing new for Republicans, but to have the audacity to think that such a simple-minded conservative rallying call is a reasonable replacement for tried and true programs that support America’s poor is ludicrous. Needless to say, of course, LGBT individuals need not apply to Jeb!’s program of societal engineering in defiance of fast-shifting cultural mores.
Jeb! is at least offering substantive policy proposals rather than the vague demagoguery of front-runners like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, but the disastrous effects that such policy would undoubtedly have almost makes the more ignorant brand of idiocy espoused by Trump and Cruz look good.
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Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.