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Reichert Opening Statement: Hearing on Improving the Safety Net: Better Coordinating Today’s Maze of Benefits and Programs to Ensure Families Receive Real Help

July 31, 2013

Today’s hearing is the third in a series this summer, set around the theme of reforming programs designed to assist low-income Americans in going to work and climbing the economic ladder.

Our first hearing highlighted how not working or working less than full time is the number one cause of poverty.  Despite this obvious fact, the complex interaction between welfare programs often actively discourages work.  And few programs designed to help those in need expect recipients to work, train for a job, or look for work.  As one of our witnesses testified, instead of help finding a job, when she first received benefits the local welfare office offered far less – “just a check,” as she put it.  That’s not nearly enough.
Our second hearing showed how the federal government spends $15,000 per person below the poverty line each year on low-income programs, yet most programs cannot demonstrate that their spending results in better outcomes for low-income families.  Again, that’s just not good enough.

Today’s hearing will review how the current maze of over 80 low-income programs is poorly coordinated and doesn’t lift low-income families with children out of poverty for the long run.  As we will hear, our State partners have a number of ideas about how we can improve this system so more programs pull in the same direction of helping low-income Americans work and earn more.  

The good news is such steps have been tried and shown some positive results before.  For example, in the 1980s and early 1990s, States tested things like increased work incentives, activity requirements, sanctions, and time limits. Drawing on the lessons learned from those waiver demonstrations, reforms were then made part of the 1996 welfare reforms, and they worked to increase work and earnings and reduce poverty and benefit dependence.  

The bad news is the scale of what is required next.

As one of our witnesses, Clarence Carter of Arizona, notes in his testimony, the Department
he heads oversees 40 different safety net programs — “each with its own objectives, rules,
and funding.” Not surprisingly, these dozens of programs “function separately” even though they strive to serve many of the same people in need.  It’s often said that no one would design a system like this.  Yet every year, we dutifully operate this system, and tolerate its poor outcomes – including too much waste and inefficiency and ultimately too much human suffering.    

We are here today to ask if there is a better way.  Is there a better way to serve those in need, to support work and upward mobility, and to engage low-income adults in activities that lead to self-sufficiency?  

The key question is not how much we spend, even though taxpayers now spend $1 trillion on these programs each year.  Instead, the key question is whether we and our State partners can find better ways to achieve real results for those in need.  I think we can, and I am encouraged that we have serious and seasoned experts with us today to help us think through these critical questions.  

This week’s headlines remind us what’s at stake.  The Associated Press reported Monday that “Four out of 5 U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives.”  Set against this reality are the programs we are talking about today, which are simply not doing enough to head off poverty and financial insecurity, or help people get back on their feet quickly when difficulties arise.  

We should expect and deliver more.  

I look forward to all of our testimony.