Devolution as Demolition: Social welfare budgets and the states

Credit: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

I had to pretty much completely revise my lectures on state and federal budgetary/fiscal policies for this fall’s Advanced Policies course. I wanted to include content on the federal stimulus, some information on how tax and budgetary policies likely will (and, perhaps even more importantly) will not change under an Obama Administration, and also discuss the extreme fiscal strain on states.

It was in researching that latter point that the cruelty and profound injustice of our journey towards devolution became so much clearer. It has been at times a slow slide and at other times a dramatic drop, but the end result is clear: states are responsible for more and more of the social welfare functions that the federal government used to provide.

In much of the professional/academic literature on the topic of new federalism, including that which comes from social workers, this lament is always accompanied by the disclaimer: “but now decision-making is so much closer to the people.” As though we’re comparing equal entities’ provision of service so that, of course, we would prefer that which is more nimble and responsive and “democratic”. Setting aside the not-trivial question of whether state governments really are more accountable and representative, this recession is bringing into focus the fundamental ways in which comparisons between state and federal social welfare systems would be laughable, if the impact wasn’t so tragic.

To put it in perspective: the combined fiscal capacity ($$$$) of all of the state budgets in the country is only a little more than half of the size of the federal budget. Yes, I know that the federal government is responsible for many things that the states are not (chiefly, national defense) but, in today’s euphemistically titled ‘new federalism’, the reverse is also true. Slice it however you want, wrap it up in pretty ‘responsive, accountable, nimble’ paper, but it’s still means that there’s just not enough to go around when we push things off on state governments that are smaller, more restricted in their revenue generation (especially as states’ tax bases are linked to the federal one, which keeps being eroded), and unable to borrow money (except Connecticut!) when times get really tough.

I’ve tried all week to come up with an analogy that I think really illustrates this, but here’s the best I could come up with. Hopefully someone has something better that they can post in the comments (hint, hint!)?

Say you’re really hungry. Really, really hungry. You go to a restaurant, and your choice is between one table, served by the nicest waiter who will let you choose the color of napkin that you want and what music to listen to, will come running anytime you call, and asks for your opinions before making a move. But, at this table, you can only have a small slice of bread or half an apple (you can choose, but that’s all they have). At the other table, there’s no tablecloth, the food is brought out by an unsmiling robot, and you can’t choose what you get, but you’ll get a decent plate of food: say, spaghetti and meatballs (it’s still not 4 star, folks, let’s not kid ourselves). Which would you choose?

This current recession is not done devastating states. Budget shortfalls are projected to be even worse in Fiscal Year 2011 than they are this year. And this year they’re horrible. As in more than $350 billion dollars, between them, for both years combined. Stimulus dollars cover less than 40% of this gap, so states are slashing budgets for higher education, public assistance, state workforce, K-12 schools, and services for seniors. More than 39 states have already cut programs for their most vulnerable residents. And it’s going to get worse.

Social work advocates can and should (and MUST) fight these battles in our state legislatures, arguing persuasively for the programs that people need to survive and to thrive. We have to win more of those fights every year. But we also need to point out what governors all over the country are quickly learning: there’s only so much that a state can do. Some of the core services that states are currently cutting should not, really, be their responsibility at all. We have a federal government to provide for our common welfare, not just our collective defense. The era of devolution as demolition needs to come to an end. We need to stop using squishy language about taking government close to the people and start ensuring that people get what they need.

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