By Matthew Dickerson
March 22, 2019
The U.S. economy is strong. There are now about 1 million more job openings than unemployed individuals, and the number of people leaving their jobs is up, one indication they are finding new ones that pay more.
This is the kind of expanded opportunity supporters of the tax bill predicted. Unfortunately, there are still places that have not felt the full effects of the prosperity. Cycles of generational poverty plague too many of our communities because of barriers that limit opportunity.
All people have unique talents and skills and are capable of extraordinary things, and it should be the goal of welfare programs to remove barriers for individuals in poverty to begin the process of realizing their full potential.
The government spends nearly $1 trillion annually on 92 assistance programs for low-income individuals. But few of these programs focus on helping people unlock what they are capable of or help them become self-sufficient and reenter the workforce, where they can thrive. The result is that the programs themselves become barriers to opportunity because they provide nothing beyond material need, and the people in them get left behind.
Making poverty easier to endure should not be the end goal. We have to make it easier to escape – permanently.
The landmark 1996 welfare reform law represented an important paradigm shift by ending the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) that focused on making poverty easier to endure and replacing it with the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, which instead provided necessary aid while promoting work as the best path out of poverty.
After President Bill Clinton signed welfare reform into law, the number of single mothers working increased, child poverty decreased, and the number of families on the welfare rolls fell. This represented a marked improvement over the old status quo.
Despite the vast improvement TANF represents over the old system in terms of helping people tap into their unique gifts and talents to find purpose and contribute, the program leaves opportunity on the table.
It requires states to engage only half of the adult beneficiaries of the program in employment or other self-improvement activities, such as looking for work, attending school, job training or volunteering. And under current policy, states are allowed to reduce the minimum engagement requirement even further. As a result, 20 states have an adjusted minimum work participation rate standard of zero, meaning they are not engaging welfare recipients in work or work-preparation activities.
Such low expectations send the wrong message – to both state administrators running the program as well as beneficiaries – that those currently stuck in poverty are destined to stay there.
Instead, people need opportunities to learn, contribute and pursue success. Someone’s situation at birth should not dictate their outcome for life. Yet today in America, we see it happening time and time again – the poverty trap.
Over the last several years, TANF has been routinely extended in appropriations bills, with little to no debate about how to improve it. With the current TANF authorization expiring at the end of June, Congress should take advantage of the opportunity to innovate and strengthen the program, with a renewed focus on helping those who are in temporary need of assistance begin to transition off of welfare and back into the workforce where they can find meaning and purpose.
That is exactly what the Jobs and Opportunity with Benefits and Services (JOBS) for Success Act, recently introduced by Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) and Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) would do.
The bill would ensure that all work-eligible beneficiaries have a job or, with the help of a case manager, are looking for a job, have enrolled in school or job training, or are volunteering with a community service organization, to give back in some way. Beneficiaries would meet short- and long-term goals based on their individualized opportunity plans built around their skills and education. States would be required to allocate higher percentages of the federal funding they receive for core work-support services for beneficiaries.
Additionally, the Brady-Daines proposal would improve accountability by requiring regular report cards on how effectively states are administering their programs. But most importantly, the JOBS for Success Act puts the focus back where is should be: helping beneficiaries leave with the tools they need to learn, contribute and pursue success.
The JOBS for Success Act respects the dignity of people and believes in their potential. It would be an important step in the right direction for just one of the nearly 100 federal welfare programs, in reducing poverty to only a temporary situation for individuals and not a life-long sentence.