Welfare and Fiscal Federalism

October 4, 2010

The Washington Post recently reported on the federal government’s cash-welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Despite the deep recession, the TANF welfare rolls haven’t seen a dramatic increase. Meanwhile, other federal anti-poverty programs have seen the sizable increases that are to be expected in a recession:   

Nationwide, welfare cases grew by 11 percent from the start of the recession through March, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. In contrast, the number of families getting food stamps jumped by 50 percent and the number getting unemployment benefits more than doubled. Medicaid grew by more than 13 percent from late 2007 to late 2009, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. 
As I’ve noted before, TANF’s tighter work and eligibility requirements have made it a less desirable option for those seeking government assistance. Over the past decade, inflation-adjusted spending on all federal anti-poverty programs has increased by 89 percent. Only TANF saw a decrease in spending. 
When TANF replaced the federal government’s open-ended entitlement in 1996, it allowed the states great leeway to set benefits. California, which offers more generous benefits than other states, has seen its TANF rolls increase by almost 25 percent since the recession started. In contrast, Michigan and Rhode Island, which have seen a respective 2 percent increase and 10 percent decrease in their welfare rolls, offer less generous TANF benefits. 
The variation in TANF enrollment among the states points to the desirability of handing off all responsibility for anti-poverty programs to the states. The beauty of fiscal federalism is that it enables states to pursue policies that better reflect local preferences, while constraining governments because of interstate competition. Federal policymakers should get out of the anti-poverty business as the Constitution intended. 


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