Just one day before attending a poverty forum in South Carolina, presidential candidate Jeb Bush unveiled his own plan for helping the poor, entitled the "Empowerment Agenda for the 21st Century." The plan calls for eliminating welfare as we know it.
Bush, who is faring poorly in national polls but continues to project the image of a substantive and serious alternative to extremist outsiders like Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), has pitched a reform plan that seeks to abolish the most crucial federal assistance programs in the United States, and replace them with "Right to Rise Grants" managed by the states.
Bush's campaign says the current welfare system is "broken," unable to lift people out of poverty and "contributes to a sense of unfairness among non-welfare recipients, who feel they work hard yet support a system that does not encourage work."
The former Florida governor has proposed trimming the federal fat and doing away with the following federal initiatives:
• Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
• Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
• Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers
• Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance
• Public Housing Programs
SNAP is the federal food stamps program, and TANF is federal cash assistance, or what is commonly understood as welfare. The three housing programs Bush mentions constitute the essential financial aid toolkit that helps low-income people across the nation pay the rent when they make far less than the regional median wage.
Bush proposes replacing the federal programs with special grants that state governments would apply for, allowing them to manage their own programs to aid the poor. The idea, Bush argues, is to cut waste and do away with a "one-size-fits-all approach." All the while, he would create incentives that require work for welfare recipients, whom he claims are benefitting from a program that currently "penalizes work, hurts families and creates countless opportunities for graft and abuse."
Shifting social services from federal government to state government under the banner of curbing big government overreach is a standard conservative policy position, and it's not shocking to hear that rhetoric coming out of the Bush campaign. What is a bit more surprising is just how radically sweeping Bush's plan for overhauling federal programs is, and the massive fictions that his crusade for a reboot rests on.
Misguided: There is simply no evidence that federal aid programs like welfare are subject to widespread abuse by beneficiaries. In fact, there's substantial research showing that to the extent that people do abuse the system, it's mostly by middleman administrators who are typically executives and managers.
Bush's argument that the current system for food and cash assistance "penalizes work" is downright cynical. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration gutted the welfare system and replaced it with one that imposed work requirements and added time restrictions on how much welfare an individual can receive over the course of their life. SNAP benefits generally have work requirements for their recipients. And if a beneficiary can't find a job, he or she is expected to train for one. Healthy people with no dependents who don't have a job are still expected to participate in job training for 20 hours a week if they want to receive SNAP benefits, for example.
Bush complains that some states have received waivers from these work requirements, but those states were allowed exceptions because they were brutalized by sky-high unemployment rates. The alternative is to simply let the most vulnerable people in society starve.
Finally, the point Bush makes about how states need more flexibility isn't particularly persuasive given that there's already a great deal of flexibility built into the current system. For example, the grants that the federal government gives to states for cash assistance through TANF are not required to be used for that purpose. In fact, there's so much flexibility on the federal money allocated for TANF that states often quietly seek to keep their cash assistance caseloads low, so they can use money for other services. "The federal money is used to ease state budgets, and you've created a structure where TANF ... is the welfare system for the states rather than for people," H. Luke Shaefer, a public policy professor at the University of Michigan, explained to Mic in an interview in September.
In sum, the current federal system for aid for the poor has flexibility for states built into it, shows no signs of being widely exploited by deceptive recipients and is already tied to work requirements. It's not in need of a reboot that would likely create even more opportunities for large holes in our already tattered social safety net, and could, in the case of some conservative states, result in disastrous negligence of the poor through inattention to shifting resource allocation.
Compared to other affluent democracies, the U.S. has an extraordinarily ungenerous set of services to help keep the neediest people survive. The last round welfare reform during the Clinton administration contributed to the number of families getting by on less than $2 a day more than doubling. It shouldn't be reformed again to make it more ad hoc and strict — it should be strengthened and expanded, at the federal level.