Bashing Congressman Paul Ryan’s super-block grant, as I did, might have left the impression that I think the safety net is just fine — or rather, would be if it were adequately funded and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families overhauled.
In fact, I think some of his starting premises are accurate. And the more thoughtful Opportunity Grant bashers I’m familiar with think so too.
The safety net does need “repair,” as he terms it. Benefits are, in some cases, structured so as to create sharp cliffs, i.e., abrupt losses of support when recipients’ incomes rise even slightly.
Federal assistance is generally “fragmented.” Most is targeted to one specific need — food, housing, health care, etc. And targeting may vary even for one need.
However justified, the targeting has created administrative burdens for both public agencies and the nonprofits they engage, through grants and contracts, to deliver services to low-income people.
At the same time, it often causes the intended beneficiaries no end of grief because they have to apply here for this, there for that — and document some things here, others there. Then they have to do it all over again if their circumstances change — a periodically, no matter what.
All this, of course, assumes they know what aid they might be eligible for. Many don’t, as people plunged into poverty by the Great Recession know well.
So how could we make the safety net more efficient and more friendly to both people in poverty and people on their way up and out? The Center for American Progress offers some answers.
Encourage states to make choices that will reduce bureaucracy. These choices come in several flavors.
One is for states to use the flexibility they already have to align eligibility standards across multiple programs and then use the information collected for one to automatically enroll qualified people in others.
States are already moving in this direction. For example, 38 states and the District of Columbia have integrated their intake and eligibility determination processes for Medicaid and SNAP (the food stamp program).
Another, specifically for SNAP, is to use certain standard deductions in determining income eligibility, rather than calculations based on actual itemized costs.
Still another, reported by CLASP in its brief on an initiative to help states streamline their work support programs, is to eliminate eligibility and verification requirements that aren’t required by federal laws or rules.
Adopt “no wrong door” approaches. The basic idea here is that people seeking help can get linked to any and all assistance they’re qualified for on a single website or at a single location, e.g., a center operated by a public agency or community-based organization.
CAP cites the Benefit Bank and two other national nonprofits that collaborate with local organizations to provide one online “door” for screening and applications.
An award-winning project called VITA Plus takes a different approach. It uses the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance sites that the Internal Revenue Service funds to screen clients for benefits they could be eligible for, in addition to the tax credits VITA volunteers conventionally help clients claim.
Smooth remaining benefits cliffs. As CAP observes, policy changes and program innovations at the federal level have already reduced — or in some cases, eliminated — the unintended penalties families incurred as they moved from welfare to work.
Health insurance is a prime example — and would be even more if recalcitrant states would expand their Medicaid programs as the Affordable Care Act envisions.
A this point, residents of 26 states and the District can transition directly from Medicaid to subsidized health insurance policies — generously subsidized if their incomes tip them just over the ACA-established Medicaid limit.
There are additional opportunities. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture permits states to postpone downward adjustments of SNAP benefits for five months when families move from welfare to work. Only 20 states do so now.
Loss of childcare subsidies is another cliff states have the flexibility to smooth.
Reduce reporting and recertification requirements. Agencies obviously must at some intervals — and in some manner — make sure that people enrolled in safety net and other means-tested programs are still income-eligible.
But requiring beneficiaries to recertify frequently creates cliffs for the many low-wage workers whose earnings go up and down according to the irregular schedules employers often impose.
And when workers must show up in person, with reams of paper — and wait until someone gets around to seeing them — they may lose work hours. Even their jobs perhaps. Needless to say, such requirements also create hardships for frail seniors and people with disabilities.
Once again, states can streamline their bureaucracies and make life easier for beneficiaries at the same time. And once again, some already do.
Now, as CAP hastens to say, these improvements are only “a piece of the puzzle to provide a hand up” to people in poverty.
And the improvements themselves will require public investments. Smoothing cliffs, for example, will require funding to extend benefits up the income scale.
Streamlining access to benefits will require investments to strengthen technological capacities, e.g., heavy-duty computer systems, online screening and applications tools, programs that talk to one another.
But we clearly don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as Ryan’s super-block grant would do.
NOTE: I’m painfully aware that this post fails to do justice to the initiatives — or even types of initiatives — that public agencies and nonprofits have undertaken, along the lines that CAP recommends. This alone is proof, if any were needed, that the federal government hasn’t imposed “cookie cutter” management or stifled civil society.