Political Intelligence

LET THEM EAT SOUNDBITES.

The only number that counts to welfare reformers in Texas and across the country is the bottom line: how many cases have been dumped from the welfare rolls? By that measure, Texas’s effort has been a huge success: the staggering 47 percent drop in food stamp recipients in the state since 1995 is the highest percentage decline in the country. But what happened to all those people? The state has no way of knowing: having spent so much of the 1995 session enthusiastically complying with Gingrich and Company’s gutting of the federally-funded program, Texas lawmakers were left with no time remaining to consider how to track the results. Now, using caseload and administrative data from the ten Texas counties with the biggest caseloads, the Center for Public Policy Priorities has put together a report that attempts to come up with a real evaluation of the effects of welfare reform. What they found is that the reformers, to put it charitably, were more successful than they intended to be: almost three million Texans who are eligible for food stamps are not receiving them. There has been no accompanying decline in poverty or unemployment to justify the precipitous drop in the state’s food stamp rolls. Nor has there been a proportionate decline in applications to the program. Instead, the report finds, administrative hindrances and confusion — among both welfare workers and clients — have prevented many who should be receiving assistance from getting it.

Texas has been notoriously slow in using available outreach funds to inform eligible Texans of their right to obtain assistance under the program. Instead, caseworkers often have failed to inform clients of their rights, particularly in cases involving clients who are dropped from cash assistance rolls (which is largely state money). Such clients often still qualify for the federally funded food stamp program (which has much higher maximum income limits), but are not informed of this fact. This mix-up particularly affects working poor families, who give up their cash assistance in favor of work, but still don’t earn enough to lift themselves out of poverty. Confusion over eligibility, the report estimates, has cost the state roughly $800 million in federal funds, which would have been spent largely in stressed local communities that could have used the commerce. Instead, former food stamp recipients are increasingly turning to the state’s over-burdened food banks. “Clearly, hundreds of thousands of families in Texas are hungry, they are poor, and they are attempting to get Food Stamps. That so many Texans cannot afford enough food to feed their families and so few eligible families are getting nutrition assistance is very troubling and poses serious policy concerns for Texas,” said Celia Hagert, nutrition policy analyst for the Center.

BUSH BROWNED AGAIN.

One of the governor’s first environmental innovations was a 1995 law that encouraged Texas companies to self-report environmental violations by granting them an “environmental audit privilege.” Under the program, companies are not held liable for anything reported in the voluntary audits, and state environmental employees are prohibited from disclosing the findings, even if they contain information with public health implications. According to documents assembled by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (now coordinated by Erin Rogers, formerly of the victorious Sierra Blanca Legal Defense Fund), since 1995, 242 companies have filed 1,040 privileged internal audits with the T.N.R.C.C. Companies averaged more than four environmental violations per audit, though Texans will never know what they entailed, because the audits are not subject to the Open Records Act. As with his plan for grandfathered polluters, the governor’s voluntary approach has been popular with his corporate friends: PEER research shows that while companies that donated to Bush filed just 17 percent of the audits, they accounted for 38 percent of all requests for immunity from prosecution. For the full report on Bush and the “environmental audit privilege’ law, visit PEER’s website at www.txpeer.org.

THE NEW NEW THING.

Steve Forbes’ flat tax is now old news, pitched by Forbes and fellow flat-taxers for so long it has been embraced by moderate Republicans, who probably never were too concerned that a dishwasher earning minimum wage would have his income taxed at the same rate as, say, Donald Trump. Congressmen Henry Bonilla and Sam Hall have something new for you. Bonilla, a Republican from San Antonio, and Hall, a nominal Democrat from Rockwall, are supporting a national sales tax, which will eliminate the cumbersome — and progressive — income tax entirely. In its place we will pay a retail sales tax on goods at the point of purchase. “Employees will be able to keep their entire paychecks!” said the director of the Associated General Contractors of America, when his group got behind the national sales tax. “They haven’t been able to do that since income tax withholding was begun in the 1930s.” Economists not working for the Manhattan Institute consider the sales tax one of the most regressive forms of taxation: the less you earn, the greater percentage of your earnings are paid in taxes on what you buy. The new national sales tax promises lower tax on production, which will allow investment to grow while interest rates drop. It will not include taxes on stocks or bonds. Bonilla’s constituents in San Antonio, who pay one of the highest sales taxes in the nation (with a local half-cent sales tax for mass transit stacked onto the state and city sales taxes) may not be as excited about the idea as is their congressman. It’s finally come to this: the most progressive tax plan on the table is Donald Trump’s plan to retire the national debt by soaking the rich. But then again, maybe The Donald is the only one who could get away with putting the screws to his own neighbors.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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