We all know how hard it is for folks like David Brooks, living in remote corners of Washington, to find out about changes in public policy. Therefore, it wasn't surprising to see him praise Marco Rubio, Brooks' favored candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, for a welfare reform proposal that was put in place almost 20 years ago.
The context was the installation of Paul Ryan as speaker and Brooks' perception that Rubio has emerged as the likely Republican presidential nominee. Brooks see both as promising conservative leaders.
The 20-year-old proposal that Brooks sees as a new idea is the plan to:
"...convert most federal welfare spending into a 'flex fund' that would go straight to the states."
Brooks may be too young to remember, but this proposal was at the center of the 1996 welfare reform in which TANF, the main government welfare program, was transformed into a block grant. It turned out that block granting did not work very well. While some states did respond to the increased need for TANF in the last recession by increasing funding, many did not. This is the reason why programs are run by the federal government or with rules set by the federal government.
This is not the only item on which Brooks is apparently unfamiliar with the evidence. He also tells readers:
"As Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute has pointed out, there are two million fewer Americans working today than before the recession and two million more receiving disabilities benefits."
Accordiing to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we actually have 4 million more people working today than before the recession, but the 2 million increase in disability beneficiaries is approximately correct, although the implication that it is due to more people opting not to work is completely wrong. The vast majority of this increase was due to the aging of the baby boomers into the peak disability years and the increase in the normal retirement age to 66. (Disability beneficiaries stay on disability insurance until they reach the normal retirement age.)
Since these factors were known before the recession, the Social Security Trustees were able to predict in their 2007 report that the number of disability beneficiaries would be 1.8 million higher in 2015 than in 2006. One item that the Trustees may not have incorporated into their projections was the tightening of state worker compensation program eligibility requirements. As a result, many people who might have otherwise been getting worker compensation benefits are instead collecting disability benefits.
The characterization of Speaker Ryan as a forward looking moderate is also questionable. He has repeatedly advocated extreme positions that are far outside of the mainstream of both parties. He has called for privatizing Social Security and Medicare and shutting down the non-military portion of the government by the middle of the century.