Pe’ah and the Truth Behind Block Grants

March 15, 2013Raechel Banks

As the House and the Senate release and mark up their budgets this week, there’s a lot of jargon being tossed around. You may have heard that the House-proposed budget include “block grants” for SNAP and Medicaid. What does that mean - and why should Jews care? When we are commanded in Leviticus to leave the corners of our fields gleaned, the Torah doesn’t exactly explain what a corner means. The amount referenced, a “pe’ah,” is unclear. What the Talmudic scholars teach, however, is that it is a percentage. This amount is supposed to increase as the size of your field increases. This was the beginning of community social services in the Jewish community. Our national social services should operate similarly; they, too, should adjust to mirror both the community’s means and needs. This is how many of our low-income entitlement programs (like SNAP and Medicaid) currently operate, but block grants would stop all of this.

Block grants allocate a set amount of money to state and local governments. The first problem is that this cap is determined by a static formula, usually calculating it too low to serve all the needs. But the second, and main, problem is that it suppresses the programs’ ability to respond to increased need. The intent and purpose of these programs are to fulfill the needs of all who are eligible. To do so, their budgets must be able to respond flexibly and according to demand.

The potential effects of block grants are not just based on speculation—they have been seen in other programs, which have been forced into block grants in the past. In 1996 Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) was converted into a block grant. Since then, the percentage of children in poverty who receive assistance from the program has been cut by more than half. On the other hand, the percentage of poor children since then who receive SNAP benefits has risen.

SNAP was created to expand and contract depending on the state of the economy. And under its current configuration, it can. When our economy is in a recession, SNAP participation increases to cope with the harder economic times. Then, when the economy begins to bounce back, SNAP participation falls accordingly.

A way block grants purport to save money is that they actually do not cover as many people. By capping the amount a state or local government can spend on a program, they must deny coverage to people who are otherwise eligible. The Urban Institute and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimate that previous Medicaid block grant proposals would result in 14 to 21 million people losing their Medicaid coverage in the next ten years.

Proponents of block grants say this configuration saves money, but that ignores the outside costs and externalities. When Congress talks about cutting $160 billion from SNAP, yes - I guess that saves the government money directly, but what it misses completely is the hungry families that won’t receive benefits and can’t put meals on the table at night and the rumbling stomachs that won’t be able to learn in school the next day. (Let’s not forget that rumbling tummies lead to lower graduation rates, which lead to lower average wage earnings in a lifetime, which leads to a declining economy…) So, sure, the first line of talking points for block grants may sound appealing. But know the facts. Know that block grants are a misnomer, a serpent, a threat to our society and economy. Image courtesy of Hazon

Raechel Banks is an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. She grew up in Dallas, TX, as a member of Temple Emanu-El. She recently graduated from Brandeis University.

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