The Center's work on 'Process' Issues


Ryan’s “Opportunity Grant” Would Likely Force Cuts in Food and Housing Assistance

July 29, 2014 at 11:59 am

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan maintains that consolidating 11 safety-net and related programs into a single “Opportunity Grant” would give states the flexibility to provide specialized services to low-income people.  But providing these additional services would require cutting assistance funded through the Opportunity Grant to other needy people.  And because SNAP (formerly food stamps) and housing assistance together make up more than 80 percent of the Opportunity Grant, the cuts would almost certainly reduce families’ access to these programs, which are effective at reducing poverty — particularly deep poverty.

SNAP is an entitlement, which means that anyone who qualifies under program rules can receive benefits, and is heavily focused on the poor.  Over 91 percent of SNAP benefits go to households with incomes below the poverty line, and 55 percent goes to households in deep poverty — that is, households with cash incomes below half of the poverty line (about $9,800 for a family of three in 2013).

As a result, SNAP kept 4.9 million people out of poverty in 2012, including 2.2 million children.  It also lifted 1.4 million children out of deep poverty, more than any other benefit program.

Similarly, housing vouchers and other rental assistance lifted 2.8 million people — including 1 million children — out of poverty in 2012.

Chairman Ryan’s proposal to add new work requirements and provide individualized services to recipients of Opportunity Grant-funded assistance would surely require new staff and significantly raise administrative costs.  States would likely turn to SNAP for at least some offsetting savings:  it alone makes up more than half of the resources in the Opportunity Grant, and the Ryan proposal ends SNAP as an entitlement, eliminating eligible families’ guarantee to food assistance.  Rental assistance, which makes up nearly a quarter of the Opportunity Grant, is another likely target of cuts — though even today it serves only one in four eligible low-income families due to limited funding.

Whatever merit Chairman Ryan’s proposal for personalized services has, his Opportunity Grant could not possibly reach as many families as these existing programs serve.

Cutting food and housing assistance that lifts millions of people out of poverty and is effective at reducing hunger and homelessness in order to provide additional services to a smaller number of poor households isn’t a sound way to reduce poverty.

History Suggests Ryan Block Grant Would Be Susceptible to Cuts

July 28, 2014 at 2:47 pm

At the heart of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s new poverty plan is a block grant — called the “Opportunity Grant” — that would consolidate 11 disparate low-income programs, the largest being SNAP (formerly food stamps).  Ryan says that the block grant would maintain the same overall funding as the current programs.  But even if one thought that current-law funding levels were adequate, they likely wouldn’t be sustained over time under the Ryan proposal:  history shows that block grants that consolidate a number of programs or may be used for a wide array of purposes typically shrink — often very substantially — over time.

The table below shows 11 major block grant programs created in recent decades.  Eight of them have shrunk since their inception, in some cases sharply.  (Our analysis accounts for the effect of inflation.)

Block grants’ very structure makes them vulnerable to cuts.  Block grants generally give state and local governments more flexibility in how to use funds, leading to varied approaches for achieving program goals.  But this variety makes it hard to see how changes in funding levels affect beneficiaries, or even to be sure how the money is being used.  That, in turn, makes it easier for policymakers looking for savings to target block grants rather than other benefit programs for long-term freezes or cuts.  Block grants in general have fared poorly in the competition for resources.

A Constitutional Convention Poses Grave Risks

July 16, 2014 at 4:33 pm

The idea of convening a constitutional convention to propose a balanced budget amendment or similar amendments raises grave problems, as we explain in a new paper.  A number of states have passed resolutions calling for such a convention, and proponents of a constitutional convention are targeting more states in an effort to obtain the 34 states needed to call one (see map).

A balanced budget amendment poses serious risks in and of itself.  But, as a number of legal experts across the political spectrum have warned, a convention could open up the Constitution to broader radical and harmful changes.  Such serious concerns are justified, for several reasons:

  • A convention could write its own rules.  No constitutional convention has been called since the 1787 meeting that wrote the Constitution, and the Constitution provides no guidance whatsoever on what a convention’s ground rules would be.  This leaves wide open to political considerations and pressures such fundamental questions as how delegates would be chosen, how many delegates each state would have, and whether a supermajority vote would be required to approve amendments.  To show the importance of these issues, consider that if every state had one vote in a convention and the convention could approve amendments with a simple majority vote, the 26 least populous states, with less than 18 percent of the nation’s people, could approve constitutional amendments for ratification. 
  • A convention could set its own agenda, possibly influenced by powerful interest groups.  The 1787 meeting went far beyond its mandate.  Charged with amending the Articles of Confederation to promote trade among the states, the convention instead wrote an entirely new governing document.  A convention held today could set its own agenda, too.  There is no guarantee that a convention could be limited to a given set of issues, such as balancing the budget.  
  • A convention could choose a new ratification process.  The 1787 convention ignored the ratification process under which it was established and created a new process, reducing the number of states needed to approve the new Constitution and removing Congress from the approval process.  The country then ignored the pre-existing ratification procedures and adopted the Constitution under the new ratification procedures that the convention proposed.  Given these facts, it would be unwise to assume that ratification of the convention’s proposals would require the subsequent approval of 38 states, as the Constitution specifies.  For example, a convention might remove the states from the approval process and propose a national referendum instead, or approval by a simple majority of states. 
  • No other body, including the courts, has clear authority over a convention.  The Constitution provides for no authority above a constitutional convention, so it isn’t clear that the courts, Congress, state legislatures, or a President could intervene if a convention went beyond the language of the state resolutions calling for a convention or the congressional resolution establishing it.  Likewise, there may be no recourse if the convention altered the process for ratifying its own proposed amendments.  The Constitution has virtually no restrictions on the operations of a constitutional convention or the scope of the amendments that it could produce, and the courts would likely regard legal challenges to a convention as “political questions” that the judiciary does not wade into. 

States should avoid these risks and reject resolutions calling for a constitutional convention, and those that have already approved such resolutions should rescind them.

Click here to read the full paper.

Helping Renters Afford Their Homes

July 16, 2014 at 4:31 pm

Today’s New York Times “Room for Debate” forum asks “Should Housing Policy Support Renters More?”  It’s an important discussion since, as we explain in this chart book, federal housing policy is imbalanced in two ways.  It favors homeowners over renters, and it targets a disproportionate share of subsidies on higher-income households (see chart).

This is the case even though, as Henry Cisneros, former Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, points out, “the primary focus of federal housing policy should be to help those most in need.”  Need among renters is rising.  As MacArthur Foundation president Julia Stasch notes, “increasing rents, stagnant wages and inadequate federal support have made rental housing less affordable for more people.”  Low-income renters — including veterans, seniors, people with disabilities, and working families — are far likelier than homeowners and higher income households to need assistance to keep a roof over their heads and make ends meet.

Three ongoing policy debates offer opportunities to move in this direction:

  • Most immediately, Congress should provide more resources in 2015 funding bills to restore Housing Choice Vouchers and other low-income rental assistance that was cut as a result of sequestration in 2013.  Those cuts prevented thousands of low-income Americans from receiving the assistance they need to escape homelessness and housing instability, both of which have been linked to developmental, health, and education problems in children.
  • If tax reform moves forward, Congress should replace the mortgage interest deduction with a less-expensive, better-targeted credit that would trim subsidies for higher-income families while expanding them for middle- and low-income homeowners.  It should also use some of the savings from this reform to fund a new renters’ tax credit that would address part of the unmet need for housing assistance among the lowest-income renters.
  • If Congress reforms the housing finance system, it should use new financing fees for robust funding — like that provided in the reform bill that the Senate Banking Committee approved in May 2014 — to develop and rehabilitate affordable rental housing through the National Housing Trust Fund.

Balanced Budget Amendment Likely to Harm the Economy

July 16, 2014 at 4:21 pm

A number of states may soon call for a convention to amend the U.S. Constitution to require that the federal budget be balanced every year.  But a convention would pose serious risks, and a balanced budget requirement would be a highly ill-advised way to address the nation’s long-term fiscal problems.  It would threaten significant economic harm while raising a host of problems for the operation of Social Security and other vital federal functions, as we explain in a new paper.

By requiring a balanced budget every year, no matter the state of the economy, such an amendment would risk tipping weak economies into recession and making recessions longer and deeper, causing very large job losses.  Rather than allowing the “automatic stabilizers” of lower tax collections and higher unemployment and other benefits to cushion a weak economy, as they now do automatically, it would force policymakers to cut spending, raise taxes, or both when the economy turns down — the exact opposite of what sound economic policy would advise.  Such actions would launch a vicious spiral:  budget cuts or tax increases in a recession would cause the economy to contract further, triggering still higher deficits and thereby forcing policymakers to institute additional austerity measures, which in turn, would cause still-greater economic contraction.

For example, in 2011 one of the nation’s preeminent private economic forecasting firms concluded that if a constitutional balanced budget amendment had been ratified and were being enforced for fiscal year 2012, “[t]he effect on the economy would be catastrophic.”  If the 2012 budget were balanced through spending cuts, the firm found, those cuts would throw about 15 million more people out of work, double the unemployment rate from 9 percent to about 18 percent, and cause the economy to shrink by about 17 percent instead of growing by an expected 2 percent.

The fact that states must balance their budgets every year — no matter how the economy is performing — makes it even more imperative that the federal government not also face such a requirement and thus further impair a faltering economy.

Such a constitutional requirement — which would be notably more restrictive than the behavior of the most prudent states or families — would also cause a host of other problems.  Requiring that federal spending in any year be offset by revenues collected in that same year would undercut the design of Social Security, deposit insurance, and all other government guarantees.  And it would raise troubling questions about enforcement, including the risk that the courts or the President might be empowered to make major, unilateral budget decisions, undermining the checks and balances that have been a hallmark of our nation since its founding.  It is not a course that the nation should follow.

Click here to read the full paper.