By Donella Meadows
–June 1, 1995–
Block grants are the second favorite right-wing solution to any problem. (The first favorite is to keep government out of it entirely.) If we must have government, it should be as close to home as possible. The distant, cumbersome federal power should be used primarily to raise money. Then we give the money to the states to spend in their own way.
Block grants have partially funded Medicaid for years, and land and water conservation and highways and many other programs. The Newtsies now want to shift federally funded school lunches to block grants, and food stamps and just about every other welfare program they can’t get rid of altogether.
Up to a point they’re right. Problems are usually better solved by people who know the situation and who have to live with the consequences than by faraway bureaucrats. And when you’re not sure what will work, it’s useful to run fifty experiments. Properly administered, with honest evaluation and good communication from one state to another, block grants can bring greater freedom, less red tape and expense, faster learning.
Of course there are also cynical reasons to favor block grants. They make it easier to eliminate programs that are too popular to cut outright, such as school lunches. You can trumpet your concern for kids’ nutrition, start out with a reasonable budget, and then quietly squeeze it, year by year. The states will fight over what remains of the pie, forgetting who was responsible for shrinking the pie.
In the area of welfare, block grants destroy the idea of citizen entitlement, which is the Newtsies’ primary intent. The money goes to the states according to a formula, no matter how many people might need help in a given state at a given time. That set-up is satisfying to federal control freaks who want a nice predictable budget. It throws all unpredictability onto the states. And it guarantees that in times of real trouble, such as severe recession, the states and the welfare recipients will not have the resources they need.
Critics also say that block grants turn one big opportunity for corruption into fifty smaller ones. It’s harder to keep an eye on fifty state governments than on the one that sits in the media spotlight at the nation’s capital.
Personally, I’m not sure about that. The vigilance of the national press didn’t save us from massive raids on public funds in Housing and Urban Development, the Savings and Loans system, or the still-unchecked depredations of military contractors. Ranchers, loggers, miners, irrigators, and oil companies continue to get steady handouts of public resources. Are the governments of Wyoming, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho more likely to crack down than our lobby-funded national representatives? Your guess is as good as mine. The answer will probably vary state by state.
There’s a more serious reason to be wary of block grants. Problems aren’t better solved at a local level if local governments have no interest in solving them. That’s how many programs got federalized in the first place. Whether it was hunger in Appalachia, toxic emissions in Louisiana, or segregation in the South, people were unwilling to live with festering social or environmental wounds, even if those wounds happened to lie on the other side of a state boundary — because problems don’t stay within state boundaries.
We are one nation, and within it (even outside it) neither people nor pollutants stay put. If kids are poorly educated anywhere, if poisons are dumped, if children go unvaccinated, if undernourished mothers bear sick babies, eventually we all pay.
Worse, the combination of local responsibility and national mobility can set off a perverse competition that drags the whole country down to the lowest local standard. If states that don’t care a fig for the poor cut their welfare programs, the poor will gravitate toward states that honestly try to help them. Those states will be inundated with the needy. If they try to cope, they will have to raise taxes, which will repel those most able to pay. Similarly, states that enforce strict pollution regulations will watch companies move to places that don’t care.
In a land with free mobility, no state can maintain social or environmental conditions that are better than its neighbors. A good health care system can get overwhelmed by inmigration. Strict environmental laws can be eroded by the threat or fact of corporate outmigration. Eventually, by choice or by capitulation, every state will sink to the lowest common denominator.
The way to prevent that outcome is to set high common denominators, strict and impartial, federally enforced. The good state programs should be rewarded with more federal support, not punished with bigger loads. A national bureaucracy needn’t micromanage state or local programs, but it can and should monitor, evaluate, and publicize them, so we all learn together. It can offer technical and logistic help. It can set up layers of protection against corruption, including federal appeal for citizens caught in corrupt or uncaring states
The principle of solving problems near at hand is a sound one. There are ways to combine federal power with local creativity in partnerships that pull everyone up instead of dragging everyone down. So far, that’s not what the Newtsies are talking about.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1995