The Right Embraces ‘Big Government’

Conservatives’ Federalism of Convenience in Opposing State Innovations in Welfare Policy

Melissa Boteach explores the crass politics behind opposition to states experimenting with the best ways to fight poverty.

Conservatives consistently attack progressives as champions of “big government” who want to take power away from states and impose one-size-fits all solutions on people with different sets of needs. This is a canard, as the Obama administration has demonstrated in its Race-to-the-Top education reform, regional economic development, and most recently in welfare reform and nutrition assistance.

In fact, the two most recent efforts to provide states with greater flexibility to move families from poverty to prosperity have been met by outrage and condemnation by the right. It seems that conservatives do believe that “big government” knows best so long as federal policy fits the conservative agenda. I call this the politics of “convenient federalism.”

Our founders set up a federalist system with the notion that different levels of government can and should have different types of responsibilities, and that shared power would lead to better outcomes for our democracy. While progressives and conservatives can and should have different philosophies on the size and role of government, it is disingenuous for conservatives to only cry “big government” when the outcomes don’t suit their preferences while they champion policies that would impose top-down conservative solutions by taking away state flexibility and undercutting state innovations.

The latest example occurred on July 12, when the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services announced that it will grant waivers on the work requirements for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which among other things imposes time limits and work requirements for poor Americans on welfare. The goal of the waivers is to allow states to test out innovative strategies and policies to improve employment outcomes for poor families within the welfare-to-work guidelines of this 1996 law.

Judging by the conservative response, you’d think that the sky had fallen. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) called it a “partisan disgrace.” Robert Rector of the conservative Heritage Foundation declared, “the end of welfare reform as we know it.”

All this sky-is-falling rhetoric from the right came despite the fact that the request for more flexibility was coming from Republican as well as Democratic governors.

Let’s pause and take a moment to breathe here. The proposed waiver does not allow states to simply suspend or eliminate the work requirements for families on welfare. Rather it clearly states that the government will only grant waivers on innovations that are designed to lead to more effective strategies to move low-income families from welfare to work. At a time when the program’s incentive structure leads too many states to simply kick struggling families off of assistance rather than improve recipients’ long-term employment prospects, the waivers will provide states with the flexibility to shift their focus to employment outcomes for families instead of outputs such as simply counting participation in work activities regardless of whether or not they have a track record of leading to self-sufficiency.

Some of these “radical strategies’ that could qualify for waivers include:

  • Engaging low-income families in more education and training that leads to career pathways
  • Facilitating evaluations of bipartisan subsidized employment programs to create job opportunities for low-income workers
  • Testing new strategies that more effectively engage people with disabilities

These are all approaches that in theory should be bipartisan.

Similarly, conservatives are up in arms about giving states flexibility to provide greater pathways into the middle-class for families receiving nutrition aid. Just one day before the brouhaha over Temporary Assistance to Needy Families waiver, House Republicans on the Agriculture Committee took additional actions to take flexibility away from state governments on administering food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Currently, 40 states, with Democratic and Republican governors, use a provision known as “categorical eligibility,” which grants states the flexibility to eliminate or raise the limits on the value of assets families can possess before losing nutrition assistance.

These asset limits often keep families mired in poverty because they risk losing needed food aid if they save enough money to fix their car, put away money in case of an emergency, or pay tuition to improve their long-term job prospects. This provision also reduces state paperwork and provides for better coordination among various programs that help low-income families.

Yet on July 11, Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee voted to strip away this state flexibility, which if implemented, would kick over 2 million people off of nutrition assistance, and deprive nearly 300,000 low-income schoolchildren off automatic access to free school lunch—all while increasing administrative burdens on state governments.

So Republicans, the party of “small government,” have this month voted to take flexibility away from states administering nutrition assistance and condemned efforts by the Department of Health and Human Services to provide greater room for states to innovate in improving employment outcomes for poor families. This is cynical “convenient federalism” on the part of conservatives.

What’s worse, their stance only reinforces the notion that our leaders are more interested in scoring political points than in coming together to solve big problems. While holding different views on the right size of government, both progressives and conservatives should be able to embrace initiatives that advance a smarter government that looks for solutions and innovations at all levels of our democracy. When they don’t, it’s not just the poor, but all of us that suffer the consequences.

Melissa Boteach is Director of the Poverty and Prosperity program at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, and Director of the Action Fund’s Half in Ten anti-poverty program.

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Melissa Boteach

Senior Vice President, Poverty to Prosperity Program

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