This morning, House Republicans rolled out a “blueprint” document setting forth a comprehensive agenda to reduce poverty and increase opportunity. The agenda is the culmination of several years of dedicated thinking on the right about poverty and upward mobility, spearheaded by Speaker Paul Ryan. The poverty-and-opportunity blueprint is one of six that will comprise the “Better Way” agenda setting forth House GOP priorities in this Congress and the next. Notably, this is the first to be unveiled, reflecting the priority that Speaker Ryan, in particular, has placed on antipoverty policy.
Like the opportunity agenda laid out by the House Budget Committee under Ryan’s chairmanship, the new one is impressively thoughtful and wide-ranging. It is clearer than ever that the freshest thinking around antipoverty policy today comes from conservatives. The blueprint reflects the work of a cross-committee task force on poverty, opportunity and upward mobility, led by the chairmen of the Ways and Means, Budget, Education and Workforce, Agriculture, and Financial Services committees. Similar task forces will craft the other five policy blueprints, ensuring that the overall agenda reflects the priorities of the House Republican membership.
The poverty and opportunity agenda unveiled today largely is divided between safety net reforms and policy reforms to promote investment in skills and education. But suffused throughout the blueprint document are several themes that distinguish the agenda from others on offer. It emphasizes the centrality of work to the realization of opportunity. It prioritizes state and local experimentation and flexibility, as well as customization of benefits and services. And the agenda demands accountability from federal programs and stresses the importance of outcome measurement.
These themes are readily apparent in the safety net reforms proposed, which I’ll take up in this column. Most strikingly, the report declares that “Our welfare system should encourage work-capable welfare recipients to work or prepare for work in exchange for benefits, and states should be held accountable for helping welfare recipients find jobs and stay employed.” The blueprint points toward greater use of work requirements and time limits for food stamp recipients and beneficiaries of federal housing benefits who are able to work.
Currently, food stamp recipients who are able-bodied adults without dependents face work requirements, but among beneficiaries this group is out-numbered by more than two-to-one by families with children. For that matter, as little as a quarter of these “ABAWDs” typically have earnings in a given month. Families with children receiving food stamp benefits have higher work rates, but roughly one-third to half have no earnings in a typical month.
Federal housing benefits are awarded without any work requirements, outside of a handful of local experiments. One of those experiments has produced preliminary evidence that work requirements raised employment rates without increasing eviction rates.
This emphasis on work generalizes the experience from the landmark 1996 welfare reform legislation, which increased work among single-parent families, reduced welfare receipt and (most importantly) lowered poverty. Claims that welfare reform increased the number of families in “deep poverty” or “extreme poverty” are unsupported by the evidence. In forthcoming work, I show that such indicators either fell after welfare reform or rose but (1) at a slower rate than before welfare reform or (2) among groups unaffected by welfare reform, such as elderly and childless households.
One place where welfare reform has under-performed is in the small number of welfare recipients states have engaged in work-related activities. Most of the success of welfare reform in encouraging work can be attributed to the ways that it has made receipt of benefits less attractive relative to work. People largely left welfare or chose not to enroll independently of state work promotion efforts. Because states can count declines in welfare rolls as increases in work, and because they can game the federal work requirements via various strategies, few of them have devoted much effort toward helping recipients become employed or more employable. The task force blueprint calls for tougher requirements of states in this regard.
Intriguingly, the blueprint also calls for “better connecting child-support enforcement programs to ongoing workforce development activities within a state.” This could signal an interest in the kind of “help and hassle” approach advocated by New York University political scientist Larry Mead. Mead’s goal is to impose a kind of work requirement on noncustodial fathers in arrears on their child support through mandatory work programs. The intent is to help them develop skills and gain experience while promoting personal responsibility.
The blueprint does not stop there. It also calls for giving states more flexibility to experiment with changes to unemployment insurance to promote speedy reemployment. Such reforms were contemplated during the George W. Bush Administration.
And it even advocates reforming the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program for low-income disabled children to shift the emphasis in the direction of providing services—such as mental or physical therapy or special education—rather than cash. This would especially benefit children who are diagnosed (sometimes questionably) with non-debilitating conditions such as ADHD or anxiety. The SSI program was originally created to assist low-income parents in covering the costs of caring for unambiguously disabled children; it was not designed to serve children with less severe disorders. This shift to services would also remove some of the incentives that lead states to shift families from the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program to SSI (which is not block granted and is almost entirely federally funded) and that lead parents to prefer SSI to TANF (which, unlike SSI, has work requirements and time limits).
The blueprint’s emphasis on experimentation, flexibility and customization is also suffused throughout the document. It proposes that states should have the flexibility to use waivers to combine multiple assistance programs, but it emphasizes that they must be held accountable via rigorous evaluation of the requested reforms. It also advocates that some programs be combined—or better coordinated—when they are duplicative.
But the dog that didn’t bark in the new agenda is the consolidation and block granting proposed in Speaker Ryan’s Budget Committee discussion draft from 2014. Rather, the blueprint appears to envision increased use of state waivers in the various programs, and a conversation with someone involved in the task force confirmed this to be the intent.
It is worth recalling that in the 2014 discussion draft, the “opportunity grants” that would have combined a dozen federal programs and funded them at a fixed level were proposed as a pilot program in a few states. The new agenda presents even less of a target for (misguided) defenders of the status quo; to oppose state waivers is to oppose the generation of new information about what does and does not work in reducing poverty and increasing opportunity. It was through the waiver process, in the years leading up to 1996, that policymakers learned that a work-first strategy—combined with work supports—was the most effective way to reform welfare.
Another intriguing proposal in the blueprint is to tailor federal matching funds to encourage more efficient administration of safety net programs and to front-load benefits to those in need in order to provide them with services early on that will help them become independent.
Finally, the blueprint advocates that housing vouchers be portable across public housing authorities, so that poor families can move to opportunity. This proposal draws on a growing recognition that residential mobility may be centralto economic mobility. The blueprint also calls for greater tenant involvement in public housing projects, and greater use of nongovernmental service providers.
The last focus, on outcomes and evaluation, comes through in a range of proposals. The blueprint calls for the use of “tiered funding,” whereby programs are categorized depending on whether they are new and untested, have demonstrated positive initial results, or have proven effective, with different levels of funding tied to each category. It emphasizes better evaluation of existing programs and recommends tying funding to evaluation results. Researchers such as myself, Jim Manzi andRon Haskins have called for reorienting federal policy so that it makes greater use of experiments and evaluation, and these and other proposals in the blueprint should garner broad bipartisan support.
The blueprint calls for ways to better facilitate the sharing of data between agencies and with researchers outside the federal government. Such policies also will be encouraged by the Evidence-Based Policy Commission Act of 2015, which creates a commission to evaluate existing federal data adequacy and rules for its usage to provide more and better information to policymakers. The proposal also advocates improving information systems so that information can be shared across programs to better coordinate benefits, make administration more efficient, detect fraud and abuse, and evaluate effectiveness. It envisions better using big data to detect patterns of fraud and abuse.
Finally, the blueprint endorses greater use of “social impact financing” as a way to ensure that federal dollars are stewarded effectively. In social impact financing, government agrees to “pay for success” if some intervention produces a pre-specified outcome. The intervention itself is supported by private funders who stand to see a return on the investment if the intervention succeeds. If it fails, the government pays nothing and has learned something about policy approaches.
The antipoverty blueprint mentions the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which is one of the most important antipoverty programs, only in passing. On the one hand, the report points out that an expanded EITC would be one way to reduce some of the high marginal tax rates that recipients of federal aid face when they contemplate working. On the other, the program’s high rate of improper payments is also emphasized, rightfully, as a problem that must be addressed.
In my view, a generous EITC complements work requirements and time limits in safety net programs, both by providing greater incentives to work and by ensuring that when people “do the right thing” and strive for independence they end up better off than people who choose not to take such responsibility. The drop in poverty that occurred after welfare reform would not have been as large in the absence of the earlier expansions of the EITC. (Nor would the drop have been as great in the absence of welfare reform.) Improper payments are a very real problem that has very real solutions. Conservatives should not use the issue as an excuse to withhold support from the program.
There are other policy areas not touched by the antipoverty blueprint. Social Security reform, including reform of disability benefits, goes unmentioned. Medicare and Medicaid are not included in this document but will presumably be addressed in the blueprint put out by the health taskforce. The economy and tax reform taskforces are also likely to propose policies that will reduce poverty too. But what is included in the blueprint constitutes an impressive and distinctive approach to poverty reduction and opportunity promotion that deserves consideration by Democrats.
And I haven’t even gotten to the skills investment and education section of the blueprint. I’ll summarize that in my next column.
 See Table A.16 at http://www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/ops/Characteristics2014.pdf
 See Table A.16 at http://www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/ops/Characteristics2014.pdf for the high-end estimate. There is evidence from survey data that the administrative data underestimates work. For the low-end estimate, seehttp://www.cbpp.org/research/the-relationship-between-snap-and-work-among-low-income-households#_ftnref3 (compare Figures 1 and 3).