The Truth About Devolution

A key feature of Paul Ryan’s new “poverty plan” is what he calls an “opportunity grant,” which is basically a mega-block grant with the main strings being a universal work (or movement-towards-work) requirement. Here’s how reformicon Reihan Salam describes it at National Review:

The Opportunity Grant would consolidate several existing aid programs into one funding stream to states, which states would then be required to offer to recipients of means-tested welfare benefits as part of a consolidated recovery and mobility plan. Disadvantaged Americans would each be pared with an individual case worker, with whom they would agree on personalized short and long-term goals (e.g., apply for child support or begin drug counseling) set out in “contracts.” Most important, Ryan is building on the success of the 1990s welfare-reform laws here: A key element of the contracts would be encouraging work, which, currently, only cash welfare requires. Food stamps, federal housing aid, utilities assistance, and more don’t have work requirements — this would essentially mandate that states opting for the Opportunity Grant implement work requirements.

Now as those of us who went through a parallel debate over “federalism” or “devolution” back in the 1970s can attest, there are block grants that simply consolidate programs while continuing to insist on the use of funds for certain broad purposes, and there are block grants that really just abandon policy-making to states and localities, usually as a way station to the abolition of federal funding altogether. The block grants in Paul Ryan’s original budgets appeared to be of the second variety, aimed primarily at reducing federal fiscal obligations. For the Opportunity Grant to be taken seriously, it would have to be of the first type.

But even if there are specific performance requirements for state and local governments, any big “devolution” scheme relies on their good will and competence, and when it comes to poverty programs, that can be a big problem, as Emily Badger of Wonkblog points out today:

In reality, some states have worse track records — and differing commitments — to caring for the poor, to providing them health care, to lifting children and families out of poverty, to educating them. While block grants would recognize that a state like Texas has different needs from Minnesota, it would also place greater control in combating poverty in the hands of local governments with weak records on this front.

No kidding.

One more general observation: the whole rationale of treating states as “experiment stations” or “laboratories” for social policy is that lessons learned will be implemented in future federal policy. But that suggests all the free-lancing by the states will at some point come to an end. You don’t ever hear conservatives talk about taking back state and local discretion once it’s extended, at least in the social policy arena (federal preemption of corporate regulation by the states is another thing entirely!). All the rhetoric about “seeing what works” is usually forgotten, and devolution becomes an end in itself.

I haven’t gotten sufficiently into the details of the Ryan plan to see how clearly it signals its seriousness or unseriousness when it comes to these questions, but “devolution” is a big, and often bad, deal.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.