On Block Grants and Messaging: An Uncapped Perspective

The first step toward being an effective communicator in DC might sound painfully obvious, but its importance can’t be overstated: You have to know what you’re talking about. To help shape a conversation, being attuned to policy must be constant – understanding the in-depth arguments for and against a certain proposal, knowing what legislators and stakeholders are saying, analyzing how the public feels, and determining which questions have been left unanswered.

One of the wonkier, ongoing policy discussions generating renewed interest of late involves how best to allocate federal program funding to states. For things as varied as food stamps, housing assistance, and disaster assistance loans, many lawmakers are proposing the use of block grants. So, are block grants an effective and efficient way to inject much-needed funding in hard hit areas? Or are they simply a band aid that covers more systemic issues?

A block grant is a capped amount of federal funds given to state governments for broad-purpose use to dispense at each states’ own discretion. The U.S. currently uses a block grant structure for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the federal housing assistance program, and Nutrition Assistance for Puerto Rico (NAP). Because block grants give greater freedom and power to the states, it’s no surprise they’re typically favored by Republicans. In the past few years, we’ve seen presidential candidate Jeb Bush and former House Speaker Paul Ryan propose “opportunity grants” to consolidate the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and President Trump called for block granting Medicaid in his Fiscal Year 2020 budget.

Even more recently, Tennessee asked the administration to allow it to become the first state with a Medicaid block grant, and they might have an answer soon – just today the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) began review of the Trump administration’s plan to let states change the structure of their Medicaid programs to follow a block grant model.

In talking about the Tennessee bill, its co-sponsor state Sen. Paul Bailey (R) said, “we need the flexibility to determine what is best for our citizens instead of continuing down the path of a one-size-fits-all program from Washington, D.C.”

While most in red states would argue that flexibility allows states to create more tailored approaches to meet the unique needs of their populations, a blue state politician likely thinks that’s just code for “funding cuts” and “no oversight.” New research from the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality (GCPI), a leading economic think tank, found that because flexibility is often paired with only modest oversight and little corrective action, block grants can be less accountable. GCPI would say it is too easy to use block grants as a short-term budget trick, diverting funding away from the area of greatest need. In the process, the research showed, this can exacerbate inequalities, particularly for racial minorities, women, and people with disabilities.

To understand the full scope of the challenge beyond the arguments for and against, look no further than Puerto Rico, where NAP funding’s inability to flex in accordance with the added need brought forth by Hurricane Maria and the financial crisis has led to tense negotiations on Capitol Hill and families nervously pinching pennies throughout the Commonwealth. About 1.35 million low-income Puerto Ricans experienced a sharp decrease in food assistance this March after funding ran out, and Congress was unable to quickly approve a package for additional funding.

Wrote Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo in a letter to Congress at the time, “Failure to approve the additional $600 million in NAP disaster relief for Puerto Rico would force us to reduce the program enrollment and decrease monthly benefit levels to a level below those in the states.”

As of now, an agreement on disaster relief funding has yet to happen.

You’ll remember the U.S. block grants NAP, but not SNAP – the mainland version of food assistance. Some economists have said that SNAP is more effective because it functions quite unlike a block grant. For example, in the last recession, TANF barely responded to the increased need for housing assistance. Funding had a capped limit that would have required a vote to raise, and some states had already diverted TANF funding to unrelated areas of their budgets. Meanwhile, the countercyclical nature of SNAP allowed rolls to expand much more easily.

Despite having many detractors, the idea of block granting is becoming increasingly popular across the U.S. So, how can either party win this argument once and for all? From a messaging standpoint, Republicans and their allied groups need to demonstrate the need for independence in crafting solutions that address the specific needs of one state, not all fifty. They should also be prepared to explain how a capped amount is sufficient to meet the needs of their populations, even and especially during turbulent times.

Across the aisle, Democrats should frame the debate from the perspective of those who are losing – the injustice of low-income families that can’t access a basic standard of living in one of the wealthiest countries in the world – while also doing more to demonstrate how this could harm states as a whole, not just people in need.

Realistically, this is a debate that will largely happen outside the public sphere – it’s a little too in the weeds for many conversations. But it will be interesting to see how the battle to frame block grants makes its way into statehouses and media if proposals like the one in Tennessee become more common. Might we see this evolve into a whole new communications challenge – winning the public on a wonky issue – or are block grants too drab for a bigger arena?

Time will tell.