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The Problems with Block Granting Entitlement Programs

In recent years, a common change proposed to SNAP is providing funding through a "block grant". Some policymakers call their block grant proposals "opportunity grants" or "merged funding streams" designed to "give power back to the states". All of which sounds well and good, but actually significantly hurt those who struggle with hunger.

What is a block grant?

Block grants are fixed pots of money that the federal government provides to states for benefits or services. This contrasts with an entitlement structure (which is what SNAP currently has), in which anyone who is eligible for benefits or services can receive them. In an entitlement structure, the funding increases automatically and immediately to respond to rising need due to economic downturns, natural disasters, or higher-than-expected costs (such as when a new drug or procedure increases a health care cost covered by Medicaid).
The federal government’s entitlement programs reflect a commitment to helping individuals and families make ends meet in essential areas including health (through Medicaid), food (through SNAP), and support to people with disabilities (through Supplemental Security Income, or SSI). All people who meet eligibility criteria can access these programs.

Block-granting these programs would strip away the federal commitment to help vulnerable individuals and families who are eligible for these programs when they need them. Fixed annual funding would render the programs unable to automatically respond to increased need, as they do today. As need increases, states would have to cut eligibility or benefits or establish waiting lists to stay within capped funding.

The major problems with block grants include:

No Automatic Response

When people or communities are most vulnerable economically, block grants don't respond to increased need.

Falling funding

Block grants' funding levels tend to fall short of meeting need, requiring benefit cuts, eligibility restrictions, or waiting lists. Funding levels are often inadequate initially and typically erode over time. 

flexibility in funds

States can shift the federal funds to other purposes or to replace state funding. They can also make program cuts that federal law doesn't permit now. 

Consider an economic downturn that fuels a sudden increase in people who qualify for an entitlement program's benefits. Funding for these programs responds automatically to the increased need. By helping people when times are tough, entitlements also help stabilize the economy. As the economy recovers, fewer people qualify for benefits.

A block grant wouldn't respond the same way to a greater hardship and a faltering economy. Fixed funding levels would require states to absorb higher costs, or, to cut eligibility or benefits. The economy would also lose an automatic stabilizer, which would worsen the downturn. Unlike with entitlements, block grants would not provide guaranteed resources that generate spending in local communities.

These are just the basics of how converting entitlement programs into block grants would work, but implications vary for each program. For more detailed information on how block grant funds tend to shrink over time, how a block grant might affect Medicaid or SNAP, and what we've learned from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant, search "block grants" at

The information found on this page was jointly created with Community Legal Services. Click here for a printable PDF of this information. 

For more information on threats to important federal programs for Pennsylvania's most vulernable, click here.