Waste Not

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JONATHAN CHAIT MAY 18, 2010

Waste Not

The House Republicans' plan to demonstrate their anti-government credentials was to introduce "YouCut," an online vote on which wasteful program its supporters wanted to see axed. Naturally, the choices included none of the programs that make up the overwhelming majority of the federal budget. The winning item, at a cost of $2.5 billion a year, or less than one tenth of one percent of the federal budget, is what the GOP calls a "New, Non-Reformed Welfare Program":

The program was recently created to incentivize states to increase their welfare caseloads without requiring able-bodied adults to work, get job training, or otherwise prepare to move off of taxpayer assistance. Reforming the welfare program was one of the great achievements of the mid 1990s, saving taxpayers billions of dollars and ending the cycle of dependency on welfare. This new program, created in 2009 is a backdoor way to undo those reforms.

It turns out, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains, that this description bears no relationship to the actual program:

Far from a “backdoor way to undo” welfare reform, the fund has enabled states to expand work-focused programs within TANF despite high unemployment and a weak economy.

Here are the facts:

  • The Emergency Fund will enable states to place 186,000 unemployed individuals in subsidized jobs by the end of the summer. It’s the largest subsidized employment effort states have ever taken under TANF, the national block grant created by the 1996 welfare reform law. (More details here and here). A large share of the jobs are in the private sector.
  • The claim that the Emergency Fund “incentivizes states to increase their welfare caseloads” is simply wrong. States don’t have to increase their caseloads to qualify for money from the Emergency Fund. In fact, some states whose caseloads have sharply declined despite the recession have used money from the fund to help create subsidized jobs for low-income parents and youth or to provide one-time assistance to families in crisis (such as help paying a back rent or utility bill for a family facing eviction). In addition, states have to contribute 20 percent of the costs.
  • Individuals receiving TANF assistance funded through the Emergency Fund must meet the same stringent work requirements imposed on other TANF recipients. They have 12 weeks to find a job — an extremely difficult task in today’s labor market — after which they must meet their work requirement through other work activities, such as unpaid work. A limited number of recipients may be permitted to pursue short-term education and training.

The nation’s governors know the facts about the TANF Emergency Fund, and that’s why both Democratic and Republican governors — such as Haley Barbour, Governor of Mississippi (and former head of the Republican National Committee) — have called on Congress to extend it.

If you want to argue that the government should have lower taxes, lower spending and less debt, you should have to produce the numbers. If you're going to cop out and just pledge to cut some tiny program benefiting a weak constituency whose cost amounts to a fraction of a percent of the size of the cuts you pledge, you should be able to find a genuinely wasteful program. The fact that the worst program the GOP could identify is actually a good program is a devastating rejoinder to their beliefs about government waste.

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posted in: jonathan chait, tanf emergency fund, the emergency fund, republican party

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