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While We Are Distracted: Social Policy and the War on the Poor


Michael Lewis, author of the important new book The Fifth Risk, has said, “we’re a society of distracted drivers. We’re not paying attention to the thing that matters most…. The society–we don’t–doesn’t function without the government. Government is–it’s been subjected to decades and decades of abuse and scorn, and it’s collected rust. And this guy has come in with a sledgehammer and is having at it. And nobody’s paying much attention because it’s a slow-moving story.”

The day-to-day media cycle of scandals, tweeting, and outright political diversions has shifted attention away from major social policy changes either proposed or implemented in federal agencies. While environmental regulatory changes have received substantial public visibility, important social policy changes in contrast have received very little public attention. Even when individual policy changes surface in the media, they are often out of context of the overall administration agenda. Some have labeled this agenda the “War on the Poor,” as contrasted with the “War on Poverty.”

The Trump Administration has declared that “The War on Poverty is largely over and a success.” The administration has argued that the Great Society programs have actually been effective, run their course, and are now based on the wrong principles. The President’s Executive Order Reducing Poverty in America by Promoting Opportunity and Economic Mobility establishes an alternative set of policy principles for poverty policy: empowering opportunities and creating requirements for work; promoting strong social networks; devolving authority and supports to states, localities, and tribal governments; targeting assistance on the few; privatizing services; streamlining bureaucracy and programs; producing innovations; and evaluating services.

In contrast, a report from the United Nations has argued that “the policies pursued over the past year seem deliberately designed to remove basic protections from the poorest, punish those who are not in employment and make even basic health care into a privilege to be earned rather than a right of citizenship.” As a human rights matter, the U.N. has concluded that poverty–and extreme poverty–in the U.S. is broadening and deepening.

Bolstered by the rising deficit, the administration has been building the argument that social programs need to be radically scaled back for fiscal reasons. Going back at least to the Stockman era in the Reagan Administration, promotion of tax cuts and resulting deficits has been accepted by fiscal conservatives because it would ultimately force significant reductions or eliminations of assistance programs and provide the political cover to claw back the so-called “entitlements” of Social Security and Medicare. Informally this has been called the “car crash” strategy. The basic idea is that by creating extreme deficits–i.e., crash the budget and create unsustainable debt–radical reductions in social spending will be forced. The current exploding deficits produced by the Trump tax bill–orchestrated by fiscal conservatives Mick Mulvaney and Paul Ryan–fits this strategy perfectly.

So far, social services have experienced only selective budget cuts (relative to rhetoric) during the Trump Administration but have mostly been level funded. In large measure, this disconnect between rhetoric and policy reflects the larger chaos of the Congressional budget and appropriations process. Brinksmanship over last-minute government shutdowns has also largely favored Democratic social policy interests and priorities.

However, longer term discretionary health and human services funding is in a fiscal “scissor” in which increased spending on the debt, defense, and nondiscretionary programs such as Medicare and Social Security will place serious downward pressure on social services spending.

So percolating up in the agencies of the Trump Administration is a broad and deep effort to reframe poverty and fiscally squeeze many social programs and benefits. Here is a representative (though admittedly incomplete) policy list:

Raising rents, reducing benefits, and imposing work requirements in HUD affordable housing programs. The administration’s HUD agenda is wide-ranging, from elimination of the Public Housing Capital Fund, to privatization of housing units, reductions in housing subsidies, imposition of work requirements for residents, and the proposed elimination of the Community Development Block Grant program.

Cutting or eliminating Title X reproductive health benefits for low-income women. Abortion, contraception, Planned Parenthood funding, and counseling have all been targeted. New requirements at federal and state levels have already restricted clinical services for women. Just this week, the number of clinics providing abortion services in the State of Missouri shrunk to one provider for the whole state.

Implementing policy and administrative changes to the Affordable Care Act. The administration has shifted discretion to the states (including the ability to downsize Essential Health Benefits), introduced “exemptions” that will allow individuals to opt-out, enable so-called “association health plans, and defund navigators and gut informational resources for informed choice of insurance plans.

Increasing work requirements for Medicaid beneficiaries. The administration has encouraged and supported increased work requirements for Medicaid beneficiaries in individual states. Although 6 in 10 eligible adults are already working–and the majority of others are disabled, providing care giving, going to school, or report being ill–the work requirements agenda in CMS is paramount.

Increasing work requirements and reducing coverage for SNAP beneficiaries. Although those who receive food stamp (SNAP) benefits have already faced requirements to register for work, the new administration-sponsored farm bill would increase the number of hours required for work or require either participation in job training or performance of community service. It would also reduce foodstuffs to a specified “Harvest Basket” of covered foods.

Eliminating consumer protection functions for vulnerable people in Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Initially a product of the Obama Administration (and Director Richard Cordray), the CFPB had an ambitious agenda of combatting pay-day lending practices, predatory lending, debt collection, and other practices targeting the poor. Mulvaney’s first request to the Fed was to zero-out funding for CFPB.

Reducing funding, changing rules, and shifting resources away from disadvantaged beneficiaries of public educationBetsy DeVos and her appointees in the Department of Education have launched a broad initiative to significantly reduce federal funding of public schools; reduce or eliminate numerous supports and enrichment programs such as mental health, after-school, and advance placement courses; reduce support for diversity and civil rights efforts; and shift resources to charter and religiously-affiliated schools. In higher education, the administration has similarly proposed a broad set of changes, including the elimination of Perkins Loans and loan forgiveness for public service, the reduction of work-study support, and the loosening of regulations on for-profit educational vendors.

Challenging green card eligibility for immigrants using public benefits. Legal immigrants making use of food stamps, Medicaid, Medicare Part D, or public housing benefits could face challenges to their immigration status. Draft regulations at the Department of Homeland Security would also make it difficult for prospective immigrants to receive a visa or green card if they are forecasted to be a “public charge” of the state.

Consolidating and reducing benefit programs (Agriculture, Education, HHS, Labor) into a single agency with “Welfare” in the title. This initiative provides both the vehicle for reducing overall spending for public assistance and social supports, as well as creating stigma and prejudice against these programs by branding these activities as welfare.

Many other more subtle, but consequential, changes have been underway to diminish or  disrespect the interests of social policy. Threats to data are especially worrisome. Quiet changes in definition, measurement, and reporting of income and poverty data have begun to politicize the public understanding of the problem and undermine trust in the federal agencies to report the facts.

Related, so many administrative leaders, policy staffs, and analysts in social policy agencies have either been eliminated or replaced that an important source of public policy capacity is missing. New norms of policy analysis and decision-making have been created. In some agencies the words “poverty” and even “policy” are forbidden in public documents. Ideas that could be credited to former administrations are prohibited. On the other hand, certain ideological favorites such as work-requirements, state-waivers, or administrative consolidation are surfacing as solutions everywhere in the agencies.

Far too many important and consequential social policy changes are flying below the radar. There is little transparency in or communications coming out of the agencies. The hype and din of the administration’s daily fare of news makes it hard to appreciate the reality of workaday social policy changes being executed in OMB, HHS, Labor, Education, or DHS.

It is interesting that there is currently no “go-to” think tank or advocacy organization that is keeping track of federal social policy changes in real time. Media attention is sporadic. Many of the traditional think tanks and advocacy organizations–the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Urban Institute, Kaiser, Pew, Brookings, CWLA, etc.–are providing important data and analyses. However, they are not providing the kind of by-the-week and comprehensive monitoring of the rule-making, budgetary changes, and policy decisions that is necessary in these perilous times to follow social policy.

Top Ten Social Policy Books 2017

You can judge the mood and the priorities of the country in part by the flow of books in the pipeline.

This past year, the marketplace for social science and social policy books emphasized race, policing, criminal justice, and inequality. Books on social policy per se were in scarce supply, no doubt a reflection of the disinterest and dysfunction in reasoned policymaking in the federal government and in many state capitols. As in other aspects of American life, the book market has been dominated by Trump analyses and reactions, perhaps crowding out the market and sapping the mental energy needed for more serious social policy analysis. Of course, much of this new literature provides insight into the circumstances of many Trump voters. Read more

Cairo, Illinois (repost and update)


If you look at a map Cairo, Illinois, jumps out as a place where you should stop. Betsy has always wanted to visit Cairo. It is the southernmost town in Illinois, at the intersection of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and at the intersection of three states. It has much history and reputation. Mark Twain saw Cairo as the promised land in Huckleberry Finn. It was treated as the gateway to the West in Michener’s Centennial.

Cairo has also been depicted as an American “abandoned” community, included in a British expose as a symbol of the decline of the American heartland. It has been called America’s most depressing city, its forgotten city,  a ghost town.

After a short visit, we concluded Cairo is a defining community in our current American challenge and narrative. Cairo is perhaps the epitome of economic decline, mostly unreconstructed from the catastrophic physical effects of a natural disaster, and carrying the look and feel of a community that has experienced devastating racial conflict. Read more

Social Justice Americana

A broad and remarkable new collection of books by journalists and social scientists helps us understand the ferment and frustration in America — from nomads, to trailer parks, to fracking communities, to rebounding neighborhoods in Detroit. This literature follows a special American tradition of documenting people and places.  Read more

We have no aging policy


We have no national aging policy. Medicare and Social Security provide a critical foundation, but are politically vulnerable and long overdue for an upgrade. More importantly, the vast array of supports and opportunities that need to go along with a rapidly aging population – from long term care and housing to new technology – are going completely unattended. The national silence about the demands of our aging population is deafening. Read more

A Lost Teaching Moment on Mass Incarceration: The St. Louis “Workhouse”

Last fall, during the campaign, I wrote a piece called Where is the Outrage?  that asked why there was not more political attention and policy clamor to address the stark examples of homelessness and other in-your-face examples of social policy failure in our midst.

Last week, the extreme heat of St. Louis produced an example so egregious that it is worth asking again why it did not receive larger national media visibility and outrage Read more

Social Policy Action is in the Cities and the States

For all the attention that is going to the turbulence in Washington, it is easy to overlook some exciting and reasonably large-scale social policy innovations happening in cities and states. These initiatives involve significant scale and commitments of resources, and if fully implemented could produce a statistical bump in life opportunities for low-income and vulnerable populations.

Los Angeles has elevated homelessness to the Mayor’s top priority and has begun implementing a series of significant policy and program steps to respond to an estimated 21,000 people on the street. The Comprehensive Homelessness Strategy Report, released in January, has provided the framework for the City’s approach. This has been followed up by a series of public hearings, the passage of Proposition HHH, and budget commitments.  In all of these efforts, Los Angeles has conveyed real seriousness-of-purpose about addressing housing, social service, and health needs of the homeless population. Highlights of the proposal include a “housing first” approach, a coordinated social service (“no wrong door”) system, and targeted services for veterans. The plan estimates a commitment of $1.8 billion over ten years. Proposition HHH itself supports $1.2 billion in bonds for housing options for the homeless.

Mayor Garcetti has proclaimed homelessness “the moral issue of our time” and argues it is eminently solvable in the foreseeable future.

In New York City, Mayor Bill De Blasio is moving to provide free universal preschool for 3-year olds. This initiative follows on the success of De Blasio’s program to provide universal pre-kindergarten for all 4-year olds in the City. De Blasio has invoked the research of James Heckman and others in making this case. The additional budget commitment for the program is about $36 million; fully implemented it is estimated that the program would cost an additional $177 million over what the City already spends on preschool.

At the other end of the School pipeline, Governor Andrew Cuomo has implemented a program to provide free college tuition in New York state, city, and community colleges for students with family incomes less than $125,000.

The federal government is in retreat, and the leadership of HHS, HUD, Justice, and Education is backpedaling federal initiatives as fast as possible. For so many areas of social policy – aging, child welfare, community development, education, housing, mental health, poverty, public health, and substance abuse treatment – the action will be local, regional, and state.

A number of organizations, sites, and blogs keep track of these social policy innovations in cities and states. To follow this work, monitor the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Fixes at the New York Times, Next City,  the Center for the Study of Social Policy, Policy and Practice, and Governing for States and Localities.

Look at what is happening in cities and states if you want to feel some optimism at the moment.





Meals on Wheels Doesn’t Work? Really?

In defending the administration’s budget proposals, OMB Director Mick Mulvaney singled out Meals on Wheels and after-school programs as programs that “don’t show results” and are thus deserving of significant cuts in funding. Later, Mulvaney described these cuts as “about as compassionate as you can get.” (More on his comments about after-school programs in another post.)

In the interest of full disclosure:

  • I have delivered meals-on-wheels (as a volunteer).
  • I have had the life privilege of knowing one of the creators of Meals on Wheels (and have come to believe it is one of the most interesting social program innovations of our time).
  • I have a relative who is a leader in an interesting extension of the meals on wheels concept: customized home delivered nutritious meals for individuals with medical and chronic conditions (such as HIV).


The choice of Meals on Wheels as Mulvaney’s example is remarkable, because in so many ways it is the model for a social program designed and operated using conservative principles: voluntarism, public-private funding, state and local block grant discretion, and high levels of efficiency. Funding for the program comes through Older American’s Act support; Community Development Block Grants; state, county and city funds; and private philanthropy.

It is also a remarkable choice because unlike so many social programs, there is a corpus of evaluation literature demonstrating program effectiveness, cost effectiveness, and indirect benefits to recipients and communities.[i] The evaluation literature shows improved nutrition, socialization, health status (e.g., reductions in falls), and diversion from nursing homes that otherwise would have been paid for by Medicaid. Costs per meal, costs per year, and cost offsets that would be necessary from other health and social service programs are extremely impressive.

The United States has had less consciousness of social isolation than many other countries, especially the U.K. From personal experience though, I can say that Meals on Wheels is one of the only, and certainly one of the most effective, interventions for older people and disabled persons who are isolated and homebound. Often, the person who delivers the meal – and has a regular conversation – will be the only human contact a home-bound person will have.

Over the past decade, funding for Meals on Wheels has dropped precipitously, especially under the Sequestration limits. Meals on Wheels America reports that 23 million fewer meals are being served now than in 2015. Waiting lists for services are reported across the country.

In an earlier post, I worried that Mulvaney and the administration would use claims for evidence-based budgeting as a stick for rampant budget cuts, irrespective of what the actual evidence shows.

Identifying Meals on Wheels as the exemplar of an ineffective program is not only wrong-headed, it is also extremely stone-hearted. Targeting a cheap and effective program that serves socially isolated older and disabled persons? Really?

You have to wonder if Mulvaney’s use of Meals on Wheels as an example is calculated, a declaration of a budgetary war where there will be no sacred cows. Even some of the most fiscally conservative members of Congress had an immediate allergic reaction to this announcement. The response from the media, advocacy groups, and social media has been scathing.

When the dust settles, it is likely that Meals on Wheels will fare well in the budget process. Nonetheless, it is an early and telling example of how evidence based budgeting will be used to justify some very draconian funding proposals.

[i] See for example, Kali S. Thomas and Vincent Mor, “Providing More Home-Delivered Meals Is One Way To Keep Older Adults With Low Care Needs Out Of Nursing Homes,” Health Affairs (October 2013), pp. 1796-1802; “The Relationship between Older Americans Act Title III State Expenditures and Prevalence of Low-Care Nursing Home Residents,” Health Services Research 49:3 (June 2013), pp. 1215-1226; and Huichen Zhu and Ruopeng An,  “Impact Of Home-Delivered Meal Programs On Diet And Nutrition Among Older Adults: A Review,” Nutrition and Health 22:2 (June 2014), pp. 89-103.



What is PART and why should you care?

Mick Mulvaney, the new Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) will have major fingerprints on the President’s budget presentation tomorrow night in his address to Congress.

While the press has been focused on Mulvaney’s Congressional record on military spending, Social Security, Medicare, and “entitlements”, a subtler impact on social policy needs to be appreciated. (Mulvaney is well-known for his role in the Tea Party, the Freedom Caucus, and the Republican Study Committee — all fiscally ultra-conservative groups.)

Director Mulvaney has indicated he will revive a Bush Administration budget management tool, the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART), as the basis for evaluating future program funding requests.

The rhetoric of this proposal is that he will re-institute an evidence-based approach to budgeting and resource allocation.

Historically, PART follows a long tradition of budget and program management systems, starting with the Planning, Programming, Budgeting System (PPBS), implemented by Robert McNamara and others in the Pentagon. PPBS was followed by Management by Objectives (MBO) in the Nixon Administration, and Zero-Based Budgeting (ZBB) in the Carter Administration. The passage of the Government Performance Accountability Act in 1993, reauthorized in 2010, led to numerous improvements and expansion of government information and evidence  in budget planning for federal programs.

The Obama Administration implemented a “performance and analysis” program that lodged considerable responsibility for accountability and decision-making in the agencies. However, for all of this history, most observers of the budget process see little linkage between evidence of program performance and fiscal decisions.

The Bush Administration’s PART system produced scores or ratings of federal programs based on assessments of program purpose and design, strategic planning, program management, and program results. The particular questions that guided the scoring was based on a schema of different program types, such as competitive grant programs or regulatory programs. Program results or outcomes accounted for half of the weight of the total score. Once programs were scored they were sorted into five categories of performance: effective, moderately effective, adequate, ineffective, or results not demonstrated.

There were numerous areas of controversy in the design and implementation of Bush’s PART:

  • What constitutes evidence of program performance and who gets to decide?
  • What happens to the results of this budgeting process, especially when it goes into the legislative and appropriations machinery?

The overall critique of the Bush Administration’s PART system was that it did not ultimately lead to changes in programs and appropriations because the budget guidance was nearly always swamped by advocacy and Congressional politics.

Despite this history, implementation of some version of PART appears to be a priority for Mulvaney and the new administration.

Analysts at both the Brookings Institution and the Heritage Foundation have advocated adoption of a revised version of this approach, as well as other reforms to budgeting and public management. [i]

Why might we expect PART 2.0 – or whatever new name performance budgeting receives – to be more influential than past attempts? First, in order to reach the ambitious needs for budget savings to finance other expensive priorities of the President (e.g., defense, border security, infrastructure, etc.) the administration will need a big stick to justify cuts in social programs. Performance-based budgeting systems like PART provide the aura and possibly the reality of a rational and objective basis for those cuts.

Second, Mick Mulvaney will likely exert outsized influence in the new administration, especially given the weakness of many of the other domestic policy secretaries.

Third, the alignment of this approach with the goals and values of many of the budget hawks in the Congress – including Speaker Ryan – means that there is less likelihood that the Congress will undermine or sabotage the budget analysis coming out of the administration than has happened in recent history.

For proponents of evidence-based policy making, systematic attention to program outcomes and alignment of program performance should be seen as a good thing. However, (as my colleague Larry Lynn taught me), it is less the case that the budget “system is the solution” than how it is implemented and used. If a performance based budgeting system is merely a fig-leaf for rationalizing and covering decisions that otherwise are driven by ideology, it will not necessarily lead to more rational and principled resource allocation in programs; just “cover” for making significant budget cuts.

As in most policy management, performance-based budgeting is complex and riddled with important details. Many program areas simply do not have a sufficient evidence base for this kind of decision-making. Interpretation of evidence is a contact sport (as the long history of argument over Headstart evaluations demonstrates). The analytic capacity that is needed in the administration, the agencies, and the Congress to legitimately weigh evidence on program performance is tremendous, and the system will only be as good as the quality of the input it receives.

[i] Andrew Feldman, Strengthening Results-Focused Government: Strategies to Build on Bipartisan Progress in Evidence-Based Policy (January 2017);;

and David Muhlhausen, Evidence-Based Fiscal Discipline: The Case for PART 2.0 (September 2016)