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How Welfare Block Grants Leave the Safety Net in Tatters

Brenden Timpe

If the speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives gets his way, residents of his state will soon notice a barrage of advertisements promoting the benefits of marriage.

In a bill that appears to be on track for approval, Speaker T.W. Shannon is proposing a blitz of pro-marriage public service announcements that would be paid for using money from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, program. Shannon says the ad campaign will get “less than one percent” of the state’s allotment of TANF funds – in other words, enough to cover a full year of benefits for more than 400 single mothers of two.

This questionable use of taxpayer money ostensibly meant for the social safety net is not unprecedented or even unique. In fact, TANF already picks up the tab for a program known as the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative – a cost of $2.8 million per year. The program was launched in 1999 when policymakers decided the state’s high level of out-of-wedlock births and divorce were causes of its high poverty rate. Since single-parent families are more likely to live in poverty, they reasoned, pro-marriage workshops would raise incomes along with marriage rates.

Of course, if the chain reaction flows the other way – couples who have financial troubles are more likely to split up, after all – then it might very well be counterproductive to skimp on benefits that would otherwise help families make ends meet. And benefits are indeed falling: Even as Oklahoma ramps up its pro-marriage programs, TANF benefits have dropped by one-third since 1996 in real terms.

The Oklahoma Marriage Initiative also suffers from a perverse redistributive effect. The programs advertised on its website are free and open to all, and engaged couples even get a big discount on their marriage license in exchange for attending. In effect, the state is siphoning welfare dollars from poor families to support relationship counseling for the general population, many of whom are surely quite well off.

Now some conservatives, led by Rep. Paul Ryan, are pushing to turn the food stamp program into TANF Junior. Ryan’s most recent budget proposal recycles his well-worn idea to turn food stamps into a block grant program and let states find new ways to implement them.

Experience tells us how this story ends. States were given wide latitude to allocate TANF dollars as part of the 1996 welfare reform law. It’s perfectly legal for Oklahoma and other states to fund pro-marriage programs through TANF, and President George W. Bush even encouraged the practice. But over time, core benefits have failed to keep pace with inflation, efforts to help low-income individuals find work have yielded questionable benefits, and money has been diverted to social policy that may even hurt the cause.

It would be a tragedy to turn the effective, efficient food stamp program into another slush fund for crusading state lawmakers.