There are some politicians who would have you think that half the United States is on welfare, lounging in that now famous "hammock" versus struggling to free themselves from the "safety net." This view prevails even in the wake of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, also known as welfare reform, which very pointedly -- and arguably effectively -- put time limits on benefits.
Now along comes Republican House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin with a bold proposal to consolidate and block grant 24 antipoverty programs, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, housing assistance and child care subsidies. Under the Ryan plan, states would be free to spend the money any way they saw fit as long as it wasn't on unrelated programs such as roads and parks. As my colleague, Governing columnist Don Kettl, will argue in the October issue of the magazine, it's an idea worth considering.
Indeed, it is worth considering, especially in light of the latest data from the Census Bureau on nationwide use of public assistance by household. According to the report, the actual percentage of households receiving public assistance has remained virtually flat from 2000 through 2012. Around 2.7 million households, or 2.6 percent of total households, received assistance in 2000. In 2013, that number was 3.3 million, or 2.9 percent.
The report, it should be noted, looks at Temporary Assistance for Needy Families along with General Assistance. It doesn't include Supplemental Security Income or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a.k.a food stamps, which spiked notably during the Great Recession and hasn't shown much sign of abating in the wake of the economy's slow climb out of the ditch.
The fact that the numbers have held steady indicates that the war on poverty may well have settled into some kind of stalemate, where a set percentage of households simply can't bust out. Of course, there's always going to be some percentage of Americans who just can't make it for reasons of physical or mental impairment, and heaven knows that the public assistance burden ahead based on our aging citizenry looms scarily large. But it would seem that cutting states loose to experiment with different ways to end that stalemate would be worth a shot. There is one caveat here, though, and it has to do with states' relative willingness to actually engage.
What's interesting about the new Census data is how states shake out on the national scale when it comes to percent of households receiving assistance. For example, Alaska, Maine, Oregon, Vermont and Washington saw an increase in households receiving help from 2011 to 2012, most likely due to two factors: First, continuing tough economic times for low-income families in those states, and second, and perhaps more relevant, eligibility rules that don't completely discourage folks from seeking help.
The list of states where the percentage of households receiving welfare fell, meanwhile, reads likes a who's who of jurisdictions famously unfriendly to the notion of public handouts, including Georgia, Louisiana, North Dakota, South Carolina, Texas and Wyoming. In fact, of the 22 states that had lower public assistance participation rates, almost half are in the South, eight in the Midwest and a smattering in the West. Politicians in some of these states like to argue that the drop in welfare participation is on account of robust economic growth. But the reason is actually more attributable to significantly tougher tests, standards and time limits faced by those seeking public assistance.
This brings us back to the Ryan proposal. Cutting states free to move the line on poverty is an idea worth considering. The worrisome part is that some states may take the money with no intention of actually engaging in creative poverty fighting. After all, up until now they've shown no stomach for it.