Block Grants are a conservative innovation to get around federal requirements. Requirements like Civil Rights for all and giving a damn about our most vulnerable individuals. Block grants allowed the federal government to abdicate its social justice responsibilities.
The fig leaf used to cover these racist directives is the Tenth Amendment.
“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” — The Constitution Center on the Tenth Amendment.
People with strict interpretations of the Tenth Amendment call themselves federalists and Federalism is the political theory that provides the abstract and non-controversial velvet glove cover for the iron fist of hard racism.
In the past the Tenth Amendment was used in support of slavery and segregation. And its legacy of using local control to support inequity and especially white supremacy continues under the banner of states’ rights, TANSTAAFL, block grants, and small government. These have all become dog whistles for racism.
TANSTAAFL “There Ain’t No Such Thing As a Free Lunch.” Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein popularized the acronym
Block grants first appear in 1966 after to the Civil Rights Act. That is no coincidence. Lee Atwater, political consultant and strategist for the Republican Party. Described the strategy of modern racism in 42-minute interview discovered by James Carter IV:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’-that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.'”
The right birthed block grants to do racism under the guise of better government addressing local needs and concerns.
“The problem with ‘Block grants’ is that the funding levels tend to fall short of financial need.’ The consequence is that the programs face “benefit cuts, eligibility restrictions, or waiting lists. Funding levels are often inadequate initially and typically erode over time.” — Center for Budget Priorities.
Like charter schools, block grants can work well in the right circumstances. Block grants can provide local government and specialized groups the flexibility of funding to do great programming.
Block grants are fixed pots of money that the federal government gives to states to provide benefits or services
Anywhere but the United States, this might work. Unfortunately the United States has been historically racist. Anything localized immediately is weaponized to support racism and austerity measures.
For a different facet of this topic read about slavery and right to work.
Aid to Family with Dependent Children (AFDC) is a great example of how a Federal Program was eviscerated and destroyed through its transformation into Block Grants. TANF turned AFDC into a block grant program now known as TANF. Since turning into TANF, benefits dropped by 47% when adjusted for inflation from 1970— and it has helped fewer families supporting two-thirds of eligible families in 1996 to just one-quarter of eligible families in 2019.
Some policymakers call their block grant proposals “Opportunity Grants”
States often added “No free lunch” punitive work requirements to monetary benefits for women with children. Punitive work requirements did not exist for the 70 years between 1890 and 1960. During that time welfare was a white-woman only benefit. The result now that Black women were also able to receive benefits, was that in order to receive the benefit, all women had to work to receive miserly benefits. They also needed to find and pay for childcare to watch their kids while they were working. The goal was to push the women into the workforce by providing them with assistance that wasn’t worth the aggravation or the work.
Block grant funding is fixed
Now some would say “Great! They need to get a job.” Our society has structural unemployment to protect the bondholders. When employment approaches full employment, inflation rates rise because workers can be choosy about jobs and demand higher wages. And this destroys the interest earned by the bond. So the rich bondholders use the Federal Reserve to increase unemployment as a hedge against unemployment. When this higher unemployment is combined with racism, many Black and Latino families are sacrificed as a burnt offering on the altar of the bondholders.
Entitlement program: anyone who is eligible can receive, funding increases automatically and immediately in order to respond to need such as economic downturns or natural disasters like COVID-19
For conservatives, the block grants allowed the federal government to abdicate its social justice responsibilities. And worse, it allowed the aid to go into an expansion of often conservative and religious agencies where the money was diverted into overhead.
A classic example of the inefficiency of Block Grants is the difference between SNAP and TANF.
SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, is not a block grant. It is an entitlement program. 95% of the funding goes directly to helping struggling families purchase food.
“Entitlement – A Federal program or provision of law that requires payments to any person or unit of government that meets the eligibility criteria established by law. Social Security and veterans’ compensation and pensions are examples of entitlement programs.”
United States Senate
TANF only 1 out of every 4 dollars goes to income assistance to fund economically oppressed families.
Entitlement programs are a form of distributive justice
Block grants cap funding. They are less accountable, and you end up with programs that don’t work. Then right-wing politicians (neoliberals are right-wing) point to the programs and say, “See welfare doesn’t work.” And use those failures to cut funding completely.
“The TANF block grant, for example, has been flat-funded at $16.5 billion since the law was first implemented 20 years ago. In other words, despite the rising cost of living, TANF’s funding hasn’t increased at all.”
Challenge the block grant narrative. We cannot continue to chase funding when a better model and more importantly, humane model exists.
That model is entitlement programs. Believe it or not, those old big government social programs are actually more efficient.
Turn programs for the poor back into entitlement programs. It is the only model that allows the flexibility to help anyone who needs help.
Block grants are not an acceptable or moral way to support families in need or the agencies that support those families.