The Devil is in the Details in Bush's Poverty Proposal

By Rob Moore

During this week’s Republican debate, the issue of poverty was largely ignored as trade, security, and most pointedly, Hillary Clinton dominated the conversation. Despite this, poverty alleviation is nonetheless a topic of focus for many Republican presidential platforms, particularly that of Jeb Bush.

Late last week, Bush unveiled his plan for welfare reform, a plan that builds off the Clinton-era welfare reforms by replacing federal SNAP and housing assistance plans with “right to rise” grants that go directly to states. Bush’s plan prioritizes state control of the welfare system, promoting work, and creating incentives to encourage marriage among low-income individuals.

While Bush’s plan has come under fire from progressive advocates, the fundamental idea of simplifying the federal welfare system is based off of widely-accepted economic principles. If housing or food subsidies exceed the minimum needed by a low-income individual, the extra money spent on a subsidy is economically wasteful. This is why economist Milton Friedman promoted a negative income tax in the 1960s to largely replace the federal government’s system of income transfers: it is more efficient to give individuals money than to police their individual spending decisions.

This principle has cropped up in the area of private giving through organizations like GiveDirectly that don’t provide food, latrines, or mosquito nets, but simply give impoverished people money. GiveDirectly in particular has found that the poor often have needs that are not identified by philanthropists, like tin roofs, and are best decided on by the impoverished themselves.

While Bush’s idea to distill housing and food assistance into broader grants makes surface-level economic sense, details of implementation matters. Gifting dollars to the state through “Right to Rise” grants could result in effective state-level anti-poverty programs, but it could also cause a turn to less effective systems than the ones in place right now. While simplification has its upside, it will only work if safeguards are put in place to make sure that states effectively deliver assistance to their citizens.

Rob Moore is a Master of Public Policy student at the Goldman School of Public Policy. He writes on state policy and the politics of public policy.