Republican members of Congress have described their welfare reform proposals as a "tough love" remedy for the excesses of government compassion. What they don't point out as readily is that some of its provisions represent tough luck for state economies as well.
There are many things wrong with the current welfare system. But welfare's status as an "entitlement" for those who qualify is not the problem. It is how these entitlements are calculated and NTC implemented. Entitlement is what makes welfare a safety net, not just for poor families, but also for the states and communities in which they live and spend their benefits.
The Republican bill would cut welfare expenses for the federal government, largely by consolidating programs into large block grants to the states. That in itself is a questionable move, not just for those government programs that are working well, but also for anyone concerned about the consistent oversight and administration of these funds.
Even more disturbing is the fact that by removing welfare from its entitlement status, the federal government would deprive states of an important economic tool in weathering recessions. When the business cycle turns down, the number of welfare applicants goes up. Under the Republicans' proposal, that's just tough luck. States can't expect a penny extra from Washington.
Yet those benefits do more than help families through a recession in which jobs are scarce and lay-offs are plentiful. They also provide a modest stimulus for local economies, enough to take the sharpest edges off economic hard times. Under this proposal, states will be pressed to make up that loss, even as their own revenues take a nose dive. Their lack of flexibility at the federal level will only deepen local economic woes.
In their rush to practice tough love on those deemed too dependent on government aid, the Republicans are ignoring the reality that the economy goes up and down, and that the number of people who need a safety net rises and falls accordingly.
Welfare reform is an idea whose time has come. Congress needs to impose discipline on entitlement programs that are breaking the federal budget, year after year after year. But in doing so, it should not pretend that it can ignore the business cycle and the counter-cyclical moves needed to smooth its rough edges.