Spending on Social Welfare Programs in Rich and Poor States

Chapter I:
Introduction

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Content

  1. Policy Context
  2. Research Questions
  3. Review of Related Literature
    1. Trends in Spending on Social Welfare Programs
    2. Measuring Fiscal Capacity
    3. Determinants of Social Welfare Spending

Social welfare programs strive to improve the well-being of needy and vulnerable populations. Government spending on social welfare programs, although not a guarantee that programs will meet this goal, nonetheless constitutes important tangible evidence of state policies and commitment to social welfare programs. Certainly, a low level of state social welfare spending in poor states relative to a high level of need would constitute cause for concern among policymakers.

States vary enormously in their need for social welfare services and their capacity to finance the services. Presumably, states that have higher proportions of individuals living in poverty have a greater need for programs that provide cash benefits, health care, employment supports, and other services. Often, however, these states bring in fewer tax revenues.

In addition, worsening economic conditions increase the need for these types of services but reduce tax revenue to fund them. Entitlement programs, which provide pre-established benefit levels to all individuals meeting the eligibility criteria, provide some protection to ensure increased funding when the economy worsens. States determine the benefit levels and eligibility criteria based, in part, on the long-term fiscal capacity of the state. Nevertheless, programs that include a state match, such as Medicaid, can place great stress on state budgets as they expand to satisfy needs while state revenues are declining.

This study, produced for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of the Assistance Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) by The Lewin Group and the Rockefeller Institute of Government, examines the extent to which fiscal capacity affects state social welfare spending. First, we reviewed the relevant literature regarding this topic. Then, we analyzed spending patterns across the 50 states and over time using Census of Governments (Census) data. Finally, we conducted site visits to six low fiscal capacity states and used qualitative and quantitative information to describe the differences among these states in their spending on social programs.

This report is organized into four major sections plus two appendixes. Section I, Introduction, presents information on the project, policy context, research questions, and a brief literature review. Section II, Approach, describes our methodology for analyzing the spending data as well as our methodology for selecting the six states for field visits and the data collection and analysis. Section III, Findings and Results, lays out the detailed findings from primarily the cross-state spending analysis. Section IV, A Closer Look at Poor States, describes the integrated analysis using the results from the Census data spending analysis and the quantitative and qualitative data collected in the field visits. Lastly, Section V, Final Observations and Conclusions, summarizes and comments on the projects major findings. The two appendixes provide additional information on the econometric modeling (Appendix A) and the six states visited (Appendix B).

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A. Policy Context

The fact that states spend differing amounts per capita on social welfare is well known; the extent to which these differences relate to differences in state fiscal capacity is less understood. The federal government has long played an important role in offsetting state fiscal disparities. However, significant changes have occurred in federal grant programs and eligibility requirements that impact differentially poor and rich states. Other factors in the state environment in addition to fiscal capacity and federal grants influence state spending, including various determinants of state need for social welfare spending such as poverty and unemployment. Finally, political and institutional factors, including the state budget process, affect state spending.

The federal government can offset state fiscal disparities through federal reimbursement for Medicaid and foster care under a formula more generous to low-income states than to high-income states. In addition, the federally funded Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Food Stamps, and Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) programs provide assistance to all eligible individuals and require no state funds.(2) Thus, a state with a relatively high share of low-income individuals presumably has a high share of residents receiving federal benefits, regardless of the states low-fiscal capacity.

Significant changes in federal cash assistance have also occurred. In 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) transferred some of the responsibility for social programs, and the fiscal risk, from the federal government to states. Under the earlier AFDC program, states and the federal government shared the risk of increased entitlement welfare spending. Under the TANF program, which replaced AFDC, states bear the full cost of spending increases above the value of their federal block grant and reap the full savings of spending reductions as long as maintenance-of-effort (MOE) and certain other requirements are satisfied. In some ways, these reforms reduced the incentives for poorer states to increase spending on social welfare programs, even if their needs increased, because their increased spending is not matched with increases in federal support.

Around this time, the Medicaid program(3) was experiencing explosive growth, placing more stress on state budgets. In fact, the Medicaid program increased nearly 150 percent, from $91.5 billion in 1991 to $228 billion in 2001 (Snell, Eckl, & Williams, 2003). Several factors contributed to the increase in expenditures, including the early 1990s recession, which increased the number of families eligible for Medicaid; extensions in the Medicaid program to cover more of the uninsured, working poor; demographic trends that increased the share of enrollees who were disabled and required more medical services; and increases in the overall costs for medical services.

Some have expressed concern that spending on Medicaid will crowd out state spending on other social welfare programs, such as cash assistance (e.g., see Steuerle & Mermin, 1997; Ladenheim, 2002). Given states increased flexibility in funding cash assistance, changed incentives, and increasing Medicaid costs, understanding how fiscal capacity, especially in poorer states, might affect state policy choices about social welfare programs is important.

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B. Research Questions

In an effort to understand the relationship between fiscal capacity and state spending on social welfare programs, this study addresses several research questions:

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C. Review of Related Literature

The following literature review touches on the highlights of prior literature on trends in social welfare spending, issues in measurement of state fiscal capacity, and determinants of state and local spending on social welfare, including state fiscal capacity, need for services, and political and institutional factors.

1. Trends in Spending on Social Welfare Programs

Researchers have tracked changes in spending over time. According to Census data, total real general expenditures on social welfare increased from about $2,000 to about $2,600 per capita from 1988 to 1997, a 30 percent increase. Almost half of the increase in state spending resulted from increased spending for social welfare. Merriman (2000a) found that this increase in social welfare spending was due primarily to growth in federal Medicaid expenditures.

Boyd et al. (2003) analyzed state spending on social service programs other than Medicaid between state fiscal years (FY) 1995 and 1999 in 16 states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin) and the District of Columbia and found that spending on cash assistance declined sharply. In contrast, state spending on child care and work support services increased in all study states and the District of Columbia. State spending on child welfare also increased in 14 study states and the District of Columbia.

The reduction in state spending on cash assistance was generally consistent with the dramatic reductions in welfare caseloads. The caseload decline began in 1994, before welfare reform at the federal level was enacted in 1996. This decline accelerated after 1996, and, as of September 2003, caseloads were 54 percent lower than in 1996. These savings allowed states to undertake new programs designed to move people to work, improve child well-being, or accomplish other objectives of the welfare law.(4) Boyd et al. also found that states with higher cash assistance benefits had greater cash assistance savings per person in poverty because they saved more per case that left the welfare roles. These high-benefit states generally had higher per capita income than the low-benefit states.

2. Measuring Fiscal Capacity

The term fiscal capacity can be measured several ways, although this term is generally used to represent a states potential to raise revenue and not the actual fiscal choices made. Common ways for measuring fiscal capacity include the following:

Of the three measures, only the PCPI data are available from FYs 1977 through 2000, the period examined for this study. Generally, states that rank low on one measure also rank low on the other measures. However, some states are ranked differently. For example, Alaska is ranked the 17th highest state using the PCPI, the 3rd highest using the RTS, and the 5th highest using the TTR. These differences can be explained, for the most part, by the fact that a large portion of the income produced in Alaska is earned from oil and natural gas production (Compson & Navratil, 1997) by individuals residing outside Alaska.

3. Determinants of Social Welfare Spending

We hypothesized that three factors drive state spending on social welfare programs: fiscal capacity, need, and political and institutional factors. Prior literature has attempted to explain the connection between these factors and spending.

a. Fiscal Capacity

Overall, research has found a positive association between fiscal capacity and social welfare spending. One study (Mogull, 1978) found that primarily fiscal resources, measured by per capita personal income and federal aid, determined state and local expenditures on antipoverty programs. Other studies (Jennings, 1980; Orr, 1976; Plotnick & Winters, 1985; Dye, 1969) came to similar conclusions.

Although a strong association appears to exist between fiscal capacity and social welfare spending, Mogull (1989) notes that this correlation fails to explain the causal basis for the association. Most researchers, however, contend that the higher the taxpayers income, the better able the state is to fund the additional services. This higher per capita income reduces the financial burden on the state.

Another factor to consider is the role that federal funding plays. Douglas and Flores (1998) found that federal government grants target states with the least ability to pay and the highest need for services. Without considering federal spending, in 1995, high-ability states (i.e., 10 states with the highest levels of personal income per poor child) spent 4.3 times as much as low- ability states (i.e., 10 states with the lowest levels). When federal funding is included, high-ability states spend only 1.82 times as much.

b. Need

It is hypothesized that the higher the poverty and other indicators of need, the more the state will spend on programs benefiting the poor. Mogull (1989) suggests that poverty affects expenditures in two ways. First, high levels of poverty increase the pool of eligible persons. Second, increased visibility of concentrations of poor people can increase social and political activism, which in turn, leads to increased spending.

Some research has shown this positive association between poverty and social welfare expenditures. Mogull (1993) found that indicators of need, such as unemployment rates, were estimated to exert a significant effect on social welfare spending, presumably by expanding the pool of eligible families. Similarly, Hicks and Swank (1983) found a direct impact of need on welfare caseloads.

Other research has shown an inverse relationship between poverty and social welfare spending. For example, Tannenwald (1999) examined the diversity across states in preferences for the size of state and local government, given their fiscal need. If preferences for levels of state and local public services were similar across states, one would expect states with low levels of fiscal comfort (i.e., low ratio of tax capacity to need) to raise relatively more revenue from their tax bases by taxing more intensively.(6) However, only a handful of states (i.e., California, Michigan, Mississippi, and New Mexico) had low fiscal comfort and above-average tax effort. Most states exhibit both low tax effort and low comfort or high tax effort and high comfort. A number of states had both high comfort and low effort. Overall, the correlation coefficient between effort and comfort was negative and statistically insignificant. This finding suggests that many low fiscal comfort states prefer lower levels of government than their fiscally more comfortable counterparts.

Another study (Jennings, 1980) examining welfare expenditures from 1964 to 1971 found an inverse association between poverty and welfare expenditures. This study found that increases in the percentage in poverty were negatively related to increases in the percentage change in welfare spending from both state funds and federal funds. However, as the authors note, this might reflect the inability of poor states to meet the needs of their poor residents given their low per capita incomes. Fry and Winters (1970) examined the effect of poverty on the ratio of expenditure benefits to revenue burdens for the three lowest income classes (the net redistributive impact). The authors hypothesized that the larger the proportion of low income families in the state, the greater the perceived need for redistribution through state revenue and expenditure policies. The study found, however, that the proportion of families with less than $3,000 annual income was negatively related to redistribution. We should note that these two studies examined a much earlier time period than our study.

c. Political and Institutional Determinants

State political cultures and institutions might also affect state spending on social welfare programs. But prior research often showed unstable results, and it failed to cover the wide range of program areas dealt with in this study. In political science, the investigation into the effects of political and institutional factors on redistributive policies and expenditures began with V.O. Keys study of southern politics (1949), where Key argued that one party dominance in the South limited political competition for voters and thus incentives to mobilize low-income families. Also, intra-party divisions made enacting major policy initiatives more difficult for parties once in power. The result, Key hypothesized, was a lack of real responsiveness to the interests of the have nots. This argument inspired a series of studies, beginning in the late 1950s, which attempted to isolate the roles of party competition, party control, and other institutional or political variables on redistributive policies or expenditures (often Aid to Families with Dependent Children [AFDC] spending) while controlling for the effects of state wealth or fiscal resources, state need, and federal grants (Dye, 1966; Dye, 1979).

In the earlier studies, the estimated effects of political and institutional variables proved small or nonexistent. Mogulls (1989) review of the literature found that neither party competition, hypothesized to create incentives to mobilize lower income strata, nor government control by the Democratic Party, viewed as more supportive of spending on social welfare programs, corresponded consistently to state welfare spending in multivariate analyses.

More recent studies amended these conclusions by using more refined models and measures that attempted to isolate the conditions under which political and institutional variables were likely to exert impacts. Brown (1995) claimed that inconsistent and weak effects of party on welfare and other redistributive policies might be due to differences across states in party coalitions. Where parties were divided by class, party control over government was more likely to influence state and local AFDC spending. Brown found that the effects of Democratic Party control of state government were greater where parties were class based. He also found, like other studies, that welfare effort was reduced by the percentage of the states population that was black.

Plotnick and Winters (1985; 1990) argued that the effects of political variables were underestimated because total welfare spending, the dependent variable typically used in the early studies, was not controlled by governors and legislators. State officials determined such policies as benefit and eligibility levels. Once these factors were established by law, demographic and economic changes interacted with policies to produce total expenditures. Using a measure of income guarantee for the dependent variable-the cash value of AFDC, Food Stamp, and Medicaid benefits for a nonworking family of four-they found that the size of the guarantee was significantly and directly related to interest group strength, measured by per capita memberships of liberal interest groups in the state, and inter-party competition but that Democratic Party control over state governments and local cost-sharing arrangements exerted no impact. They also found that the population density of the poor was positively related to the size of the guarantee, while smaller guarantees were associated with large numbers of illegitimate births in the state and high proportions of non-white families on welfare.

Other studies followed Plotnick and Winters lead and focused on choices under state control. Gais and Weaver (2002) examined state policy choices under welfare reform and also found that the racial composition of the welfare caseloads and a measure of state conservatism were associated with stronger sanction policies, shorter time limits, and immediate work activity requirements for welfare recipients. Kousser (2002) found that Democratic control of the legislature had strong and positive effects on changes in discretionary spending under Medicaid-but not on mandatory spending. Like other studies, he also found that the size of a states minority population was weakly though significantly related to lower levels of spending. Kousser found that the party of the governor had no impact on spending, nor did a measure of state ideology.

The literature as a whole suggests that political and institutional factors might influence state policies and expenditures on social programs. However, the estimated effects have been unstable across the studies. Some of the instability seems to be due to differences in the measurement of dependent variables (e.g., results are more consistent when dependent variables measure actual state choices, such as eligibility criteria and benefit levels, rather than total spending). But some of the instability still seems inexplicable, perhaps because of little real analysis in the studies of how states make decisions. Another weakness in the literature is that, with few exceptions (Kousser, 2002; Barrilleaux & Miller, 1988), most of the empirical analyses have focused on traditional cash welfare benefits, while the theories have usually treated social or redistributive policies as an undifferentiated whole. Thus, little theoretical or empirical work has been done on whether and how different kinds of social welfare programs-whether health or non-health, cash or services-might be affected by different institutional or political processes or conditions. Finally, no research has been conducted on how state fiscal capacity might interact with political and institutional variables in affecting social welfare spending. Yet such interactions would seem likely, because low fiscal capacity, almost by definition, would appear to limit the range of state political choices.

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Endnotes

(2) The Food Stamp Program requires a state match for administrative costs.

(3) Medicaid is a program that pays for medical assistance for certain individuals and families with low incomes and resources. This program became law in 1965 and is jointly funded by the Federal and State governments (including the District of Columbia and the Territories) to assist States in providing medical long-term care assistance to people who meet certain eligibility criteria. Medicaid is the largest source of funding for medical and health-related services for people with limited income. Source: <http://www.cms.hhs.gov/medicaid/>

(4) Section 401 (a) of the Social Security Act says that the purpose of TANF is to increase flexibility of States in operating a program designed to: 1) Provide assistance to needy families so that children may be cared for in their own homes or in the homes of relatives; 2) End the dependence of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage; 3) Prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies and establish annual numerical goals for preventing and reducing the incidence of these pregnancies; and 4) Encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.

(5) Two commonly cited examples are states that impose severance and property taxes on oil, gas, and coal companies for extracting fossil fuels and states that derive large amounts of sales tax and fee revenue from a substantial tourist trade. Also, it fails to count the income of nonresident commuters (e.g., New Jersey and Connecticut residents who work in New York).

(6) Tannenwald (1998) calculates each state's "fiscal comfort" by dividing its index of RTS tax capacity by its index of fiscal need. The fiscal need is based on how much is required to provide a standard level of services in the state. Tax effort is measured by the ratio of state tax collections to the taxes it would have collected under the RTS.


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