BY SUE BADEAU
Title XX, the Social Services Block Grant, is one of the oldest block grant programs to states for services related to children’s and families’ needs. Originally created in the 1960s, Title XX achieved its pinnacle in the late ’70s and early ’80s, reaching $2.99 billion in 1981. It dropped to $2.4 billion the following year, and has continued down on a dizzying spiral every since – even though it was authorized (though not funded) at $2.8 billion until the welfare reform act of 1996, when authorization dropped to $2.38 billion.
Congress continued to cut this block grant, which provides an array of services to children, low-income families, persons with disabilities and the elderly; it fell to $1.7 billion for FY 2001 and beyond, a level which President Clinton proposed maintaining. Now the Senate Appropriations Committee passed a bill that guts the block grant, leaving a paltry $600 million to scatter around the nation. Clinton says the Senate bill “bankrupts the Social Services Block Grant” and vows to veto any such measure.
How did we get here? And why? Flexibility is the name of the game. Give states flexibility and they will do the right thing for their most vulnerable citizens. This was the argument for welfare reform, and is the argument for efforts to move all manner of programs to a block grant format.
Ron Haskins, majority staff director for the House Ways and Means Committee, speaks of the need for reform and flexibility in the nation’s child welfare system. “The most straightforward way to promote this flexibility is to capture all the federal dollars . . . and convert the program into a block grant,” he maintains.
How do children, youth and poor families fare under flexibility block grants? While Congress makes many promises to the states each time a new block grant program is established, rarely are these promises kept; the block grants become targets ripe for raiding at budget time, as the rise and steady fall of Title XX illustrates. As Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.VA.) noted when speaking about Title XX from the Senate floor last year, “As a former governor, I understand why governors want the flexibility of block grants. But the history of Congress is to push for block grants in the name of flexibility, and then to slowly but surely cut the funding of block grants, leaving states and families in the lurch.”
In addition to the big hit Title XX is taking in this spring’s appropriations process, consider that the Senate appropriations bill raids $2 billion dollars from the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), $240 million from welfare (TANF) block grants and $50 million from welfare-to-work block grants. Kate Andrejack of the Children’s Defense Fund emphasizes, “When the CHIP program was started in 1997, states were told they would receive this money every year for the next 10 years. Now, the Senate Appropriations committee is reneging on that promise.”
Although welfare reform is touted as a success in many circles, TANF block grants are in constant jeopardy of being raided and have been under the ax numerous times since the inception of welfare reform. Many states have been reluctant to ensure that essential health and nutrition benefits (through Medicaid and Food Stamps) continue to be accessed by eligible citizens.
Now the block grant approach is being advocated not only by Haskins and others for child welfare financing, but also as part of the ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act) debates. Clinton refuses to support what he calls “unfocused block grants,” and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) says, “There is virtually no accountability on the Republican side with the blank check approach they use in their block grants.”
Do block grants provide an adequate safety net for children in the child welfare system, or those children served by Title I Education programs? Will these programs become building blocks for quality services, or chopping blocks ready to be raided for the next few miles of highway a state needs to build?
Health Bill Ills
As of mid-May, the Children’s Health Bill of 2000, one of a few pieces of children’s legislation under serious consideration this year, had stalled in the Commerce Committee as a result of controversy over provisions related to adoption, family planning, youth tobacco use and gun safety. The struggling bill, originally Chairman Tom Bliley’s (R-Va.) HR 3301, was revived as HR 4365 by Rep. Michael Bilirakis (R-Fla.), and had the strong support of such diverse folks and organizations as mystery author Mary Higgins Clark (she has a grandson with Fragile X), the Association for Retarded Citizens and the Children’s Defense Fund, while drawing the ire of Douglas Johnson, spokesman for the National Right to Life Committee. On May 9, it passed the House 419-2.
But, as Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) notes, “This is not a glamorous bill. Its passage is not going to make or break any campaigns. You are not going to hear about it on Meet the Press.” Brown’s staff person, Ellie Dehoney, was one of several key staffers who labored to smooth out the controversial portions of the bill so that the provisions related to research for Autism, Fragile X, Asthma, Childhood Diabetes, hearing loss and other childhood diseases, as well as the first-ever authorization of Healthy Start, could proceed.
Issues related to youth tobacco use and gun safety forced the cancellation of two committee mark-up sessions and the bill proceeded to the floor under suspension. This subverting of legislative procedures was lambasted by several members, as expressed by Rep. Robert Weygand (D-R.I.), who cried foul: “Why has the leadership forgone the democratic process in order to pass a children’s health bill? I would say it is because of tobacco and guns, the soft spot on the heart of the Republican leadership … We have ignored the needs of thousands of children in order to avoid some tough votes.” Rep. (and doctor) Greg Ganske (R-Iowa) shares this view, wondering why a “Children’s Health” bill does not “address the number one public health issue . . . the use of tobacco.”
The bill has been referred to the Senate.
ESEA: Sink or Swim Time?
Re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), established in 1965 and last authorized in 1994, is sinking fast in a quicksand-like mire of political maneuvering and controversial amendments – 118 amendments in the Senate and 71 in the House. “This could be the first time in 35 years that an education bill so bogs down over partisan differences that it is vetoed by a president.” Lizette Alvarez, writes in The New York Times.
At stake is $15 billion dollars for programs serving 11 million children in 75,000 schools. ESEA funds, distributed by a combination of formula grants (schools receive money based on the total number or the number of poor students they serve) and competitive grants, are the federal dollars behind such programs as Safe and Drug Free Schools, Technology for Education, Teacher Empowerment Innovative Education Program Strategies, Programs of National Significance, and IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). Andrew Rotherman of the Progressive Policy Institute calls it “a program Washington has created to address every ill on the educational landscape. It is long on symbolism but woefully short on substance.” ESEA represents about 7 percent of the dollars spent on public education in the United States.
Election year politics have heightened public awareness of the issues swirling around the ESEA re-authorization. Diane Stark Rentner of the Center on Education Policy believes that “the campaign for the presidency has taken some interesting turns, with one of the most significant being the growing attention being paid to education.” Politicians on both sides of the aisle and in both houses are clamoring to take credit for education reform. The tension lies primarily between largely Republican-supported measures that provide high levels of flexibility to the states (chiefly block grants and voucher programs) and Democratic proposals to maintain some targeted spending and increase accountability for performance.
The House bills and the Senate counterpart (S-2) introduce pilot programs to block-grant ESEA funds: the House version allows 10 states to try this approach, the Senate ups it to 15. These bills represent a fundamental change in the structure of ESEA, particularly Title I, allowing states to transfer up to 100 percent of their activity funds between formula programs. Title I funds would no longer be targeted to programs that address specific needs. U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley fumes, “The program [Safe and Drug Free Schools] will never get better if Congress keeps retreating from a more targeted approach.”
And while Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) says, “This is an education bill, not a gun bill,” guns played a prominent role in the debates. The House bill allows ESEA monies to be spent on such things as acquisition of metal detectors and security personnel, school security assessments and training, drug testing and locker searches, but not on arts for at-risk youth (repealing the Cultural Partnership for At-Risk Children and Youth program).
Another “flexible spending option is a continued emphasis on Character Education. Character Education expert, author and Superintendent of Hudson, Mass., Public Schools Sheldon Berman cautions, “Character education is not simple … Human beings often gravitate to simple answers to complex questions.” Perhaps some Congress members need one of Berman’s Character Education courses before they continue work on re-authorizing ESEA.
Alleged ‘Deadbeat Dad’ Wins Indiana Primary
Brian Kerns, a former chief of staff for outgoing Rep. Ed Pease (R-Ind.), won his primary over Lafayette businessman Bob Griffiths for the right to face the voters in the fall election. Just a week before the election, the Indianapolis Star published charges that Kerns “fostered an environment that was hostile to women” by verbally abusing several former Pease staffers, and has a history of delinquency on child support payments. Kerns denied the charges, and sailed to a comfortable victory.
Joe Hein, staffer for Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) and a potential contender for this year’s South Dakota House race against Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.), committed suicide at his Alexandria, Va., home on April 30. His colleagues in Johnson’s office called Hein dedicated and generous, with a special concern for children and youth. He was working to get a branch of the national noprofit after-school reading and mentoring program, “Everybody Wins,” off the ground in South Dakota.
“One of the five greatest individuals I have ever met in my life,” is how Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) described his legislative director, Mike Epstein, who passed away on May 6, a week after retiring from his 30-year career as a Senate staffer.” Mike really represented those who didn’t have a high paid lobbyist pushing for them, such as children in poverty, and working parents,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).
Another congressional “institution” and one of the primary authors of the 1996 welfare reform legislation, Ron Haskins, majority staff director for House Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.), has announced plans to leave Congress. Opinionated, fiesty and dogmatic, Haskins is known for being an intellectual strategist who has been referred to as a “worthy opponent” by minority finance committee staffers in the Senate, who often must work with Haskins on legislation impacting children and families. He has not disclosed his future plans.