While there is much debate in the child welfare world regarding the fate of expiring waivers for approximately half the states, a more significant source of state flexibility continues to be under assault in the Administrations’ budget: the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG). While representatives of the administration tout their current budget proposal that would allow states to convert foster care funding into a block grant through a waiver, they fail to frame the discussion in what such a proposal would do to child welfare services with SSBG also eliminated as proposed in the same budget.
The proposal to eliminate SSBG and it is $1.7 billion in state entitlement funding continues to be an easy target not just in the first years of the Trump Administration but for the past decade. The House and House Ways and Means Committee voted to eliminate it several times under Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WS). It was also eliminated under a bill sponsored by Senator Orin Hatch (R-UT) in 2013-14 Congress. It is tempting because it is mandatory funding that does not require an annual appropriation. It is a fixed entitlement fund provided to the states and as a block grant. Its elimination would give Congress an immediate saving of $1.7 billion a year ($8 billion over five years) which is not the case with other cuts to entitlements which may take time to realize as eligible individuals are eliminated or cut off from support. It has been a fixed entitlement to states since 1981 when it was converted from an entitlement fund based on the eligibility of individuals and instead converted into a block grant that was to gradually increase until it reached $2.8 billion in the mid-1990s.
SSBG is used for child welfare services in most states and has consistently been the biggest federal funding source of child protective services but it also subsidizes prevention services, adoption support, foster care and youth services. The two biggest waiver states, California and Florida spend significant SSBG dollars on child welfare with California allocating $278 million and Florida allocating $162 million (both figures based on the Child Trends survey of 2016 child welfare spending). For Florida the $162 in SSBG is almost as much as their $176 million in Title IV-E waiver funding. In fact, Florida’s waiver funding is only 31 percent of their total “flexible” child welfare spending when SSBG, TANF and Title IV-B are added together.
Almost all the states that have current waivers (which create flexible funding out of projected foster care maintenance payments) use some SSBG and some spend more from SSBG on child welfare than they receive in waiver funds. Looked at another way by the Child Trend’s survey, 16 states get more than 5 percent of child welfare spending through SSBG with some states like Louisiana (20 percent) and Florida (13 percent) in double digits.
Over the past decade CWLA has joined with a few key organizations led by partners such as Generation’s United, the National Association of Counties (NACO), and from the aging community the National Council on Aging and the National Adult Protective Services Association (NAPSA) to fight off such cuts. NACO is a big supporter of preserving SSBG since ten states pass funds directly to their county governments: Colorado, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.
As a block grant SSBG’s flexibility makes it difficult to defend since it only has projected numbers of children and adults assisted. In fact the Administration has used that rational to eliminate it while proposing the foster care waiver/block grant. SSBG has two outstanding features: it continues to be a significant source of child welfare services (as well as other human services) and it offers the strongest cautionary tale of what happens when a more rigid entitlement fund converts to a flexible block grant fund.