Bad Deal on Block Grants

January 30, 1995

Block grants can be effective ways to distribute federal aid to states and cities, but for food and nutrition programs they would be a good idea gone bad. The proposed Personal Responsibility Act, part of the Contract with America, would combine all federal food assistance programs into one block grant to states, eliminating all uniform national standards for these programs and giving states broad discretion in designing programs. It would also require the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stop donating commodities to these programs and force states to pay for them.

But why reinvent the wheel? By and large, federal food programs work well. They reach the people who need them, and their existence over the past couple of decades has demonstrably reduced hunger and malnutrition.

The primary impetus for the block grant idea seems to be a simple one -- it enables the federal government to cut its spending on food assistance, especially during recessions when the number of families receiving assistance always rises sharply. But this will only put more pressure on tight state budgets -- and rob states of the benefits of this important safety net and the economic activity it generates in neighborhoods.

In terms of the health of Americans, the savings may even turn out to be tragically short-sighted. Some food programs have been shown to save many times their cost in future government spending. WIC, a supplemental food program for pregnant women, infants and children, is most often mentioned in this regard. Because WIC helps ensure that pregnant women eat nutritious food, their babies are more likely to be healthy and less likely to need expensive neo-natal intensive care.

Third World countries are now discovering that even small amounts of food aid can reap great benefits, in both human and economic terms. Federal food programs like food stamps and WIC have narrowed the gap between the diets of low-income families and those who are better off. The incidence of stunted growth among pre-school children has dropped 65 percent, and the prevalence of anemia among young children is falling.

Under the current proposal, some states would gain in the initial year's appropriation. Maryland is not among them; it stands to lose $172 million the first year alone. If there were evidence that federal food programs are seriously out of kilter, or that they have little demonstrable effect, it might make sense to scuttle them. That is not the case. Food programs have made a dramatic difference for poor people. For them, the Personal Responsibility Act could represent a misguided -- indeed, irresponsible -- move by Congress.

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