What to Ask About New Safety Net Work Requirements

March 6, 2017

As I said last week, we’ve reasons to expect that more work requirements imposed on “work-able” adults who have — or need to have — safety net benefits. So it’s worth considering how we might assess what state governors and legislatures propose.

We have two major models for work requirements — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and SNAP (the food stamp program), as applicable to able-bodied adults without dependents.

Both permit not only work for pay, but participation in a program that prepares for such work. Participation counts only if for a minimum numbers of hours. generally averaged over some period of time.

Assuming, as I think one can, that proposed new work requirements will include a broader range of permissible activities than work for pay, we thus have some experience to assess them. Some questions then.

Will the state ensure that all unemployed or under-employed adults who are otherwise eligible for the safety net program can get a slot in a job training program for the requisite number of hours?

Very few states do for the ABAWDs, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports. The federal government provides states with some funds expressly for SNAP-related employment and training. But most states use most of those funds to move adults with children into the workforce.

Experience with TANF also makes this a relevant question. I haven’t seen a comprehensive account of slot shortages. This much we know. States spend, on average, 7% of their federal funds, plus those they must spend to get them on work activities.

The District of Columbia’s TANF program reflected a similar priority in the not-too-distant past. In 2014, parents waited up to 11 months for access to a job training program. And the clock kept ticking, so to speak, toward the date when they and their children could never have TANF benefits again.

Will the state provide the other resources many of the adults will need to work or participate in a job training program for the required number of hours?

The adults, by definition, have little, if any income. And such as they have, must often pay for rent, food (even with SNAP benefits) and other basic needs, e.g., supplies and handfuls of coins for laundry, telecommunications of some sort.

Will the state provide transportation and/or a transportation subsidy, e.g., an auto fuel allowance for those with a car, a bus pass and/or subway fare card for those on a public transit route?

And what about the adults with children not old enough to be in school during all the hours they’re supposed to work or prepare for same? They’ll need free or nearly-free child care. And it’s unrealistic, as well as potentially unsafe for the kids to expect parents to count on friends or relatives.

The affordable childcare record generally indicates a gap to fill. Last year, for example, 20 states had waiting lists for childcare assistance or had closed them, the National Women’s Law Center reports.

Virtually all states require parents to chip in some money of their own, as a co-pay. It’s generally small as a percent of income for those below the poverty line.

But in at least four states, it’s at least 10% — $250 a month for a single parent with just one child. (Some exceptions here that wouldn’t apply to every parent subject to a new work requirement.)

How will state identify adults who aren’t work-able?

SNAP rules exclude from the ABAWD requirement adults who are medically certified as unemployable due to a mental or physical condition, pregnant or otherwise already exempt, presumably because they’ve qualified for SSDI (Social Security Disability Income) or SSI (Supplemental Security Income).

The bar here is very high. Someone, for example, may be employable, i.e., able to work and get a job, but not for an average of 20 hours a week or for months at a time. One or both are common enough for people with certain chronic conditions.

So what standard will the state set? Will it ensure that all adults potentially unable to work can have the requisite medical review — and, if necessary, the legal help to surmount to notorious barriers to gaining federal disability benefits?

Consider too that adults who’ve no disabilities may have compelling, related reasons not to work — a child with severe disabilities who needs constant care, for example, or a frail, aged parent.

Most states and the District exempt TANF parents with such responsibilities from work requirements. Will states do the same if they opt for new work requirements?

Will participating adults be able to find jobs — and keep them?

No job training program lasts indefinitely. And it’s very doubtful that a state would allow a work-able adult to move from one to the next and then the next until s/he could find a job.

Yet some safety net participants have what are commonly called barriers to work, e.g. mental or physical disabilities that don’t rise to the SSI/SSDI level, functional illiteracy. Just plain long-term unemployment is a barrier too, as are common consequences—credit checks, for example.

On the other hand, many adults who rely, at least for awhile on safety net benefits had jobs no longer available in the area they live in — or elsewhere.

The jobless former factory workers and coal miners that Trump appealed to would seem to need retraining tailored to employers’ needs in their area — and others projected nationally.

Will the state do the necessary market and personal assessments? How will it provide these and other services to poor people in small rural communities, if it has them?

Where will the money come from?

Well, the state shouldn’t look to the federal government for more funds — not at least for the foreseeable.

Recall that the flexibility states would gain to impose work requirements on Medicaid beneficiaries would also shift costs to them, increasingly over time — currently estimated at $560 billion over the next 10 years.

Experience with not only TANF, but SNAP E&T offers further cautions. Congress, as you probably know, has never increased funding for the former. The latest Farm Bill restored the latter to the same maximum it had in 2004 — in real dollars, about 44% less.

And the budget Trump is trumpeting would reduce total federal spending for non-defense discretionary programs by $54 billion — not a happy prospect for the grants states receive for job training, placement help and the like.

These aren’t the only questions I’d want to ask. But they must suffice for now, lest this post swell entirely out of compass. Would any of you like to add others?


House Republicans Take on Poverty, Have Little New to Say

June 7, 2016

House Speaker Paul Ryan may not be the policy wonk some say he is, but he’s a smart politician. He’s decided the Republicans have to start being for something, rather than just against everything the Obama administration has done — and Democrats want.

And he’s decided that being for radically less federal spending won’t do — not, as least, unless it’s a seemingly secondary benefit of policies that have something else going for them. Understandably, since reducing the deficit by spending cuts alone hasn’t polled well.

So he appointed House Republicans to task forces, each charged with producing policies that their party can be for. He revealed the first in the “better way” series this morning — the anti-poverty package.

This shouldn’t surprise us, since he’s made a big deal about his concern — genuine, I think — for poor Americans. Nor, I suppose, should the recycled rhetoric surprise us.

What might — it surely did me — is the egregious lack of policy specifics, except for the portion on evaluation. That, as you might expect, takes off from the claim that we can’t say whether most programs for low-income people work, but can say that most evaluated don’t.

The report leads off with an overview of the “welfare system” — not what we think of as welfare, but all federal programs that link eligibility to income levels, including some targeted to communities, not individuals.

Nothing new here, since it borrows from Ryan’s earlier account of the War on Poverty. The framework for what follows is thus that we’ve too many programs, run by too many federal agencies spending too much — and to no effect, since the poverty rate (two years ago) was basically the same as in 1996.

We’ve got a better measure than the official measure House Republicans use. An analysis based on it found that safety net programs the official measure doesn’t count have significantly reduced poverty rates.

The task force, however, uses the official rates as a jumping off point. Like Ryan’s earlier takes, its report asserts that the federal government measures success by how many people receive benefits, rather than by how many “get out of poverty.”

So how then are to we get more people out of poverty? We’ll expand work requirements, of course. All “work-capable” adults must work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving benefits of any sort.

How they’re to find jobs or suitable training opportunities the report doesn’t say — presumably, however, not through more federal funding.

We do, however, find an additional incentive states may use to prod them into finding jobs that pay far more than the minimum wage — a time limit, as well as a work requirement for people who live in public housing or receive any other sort of federally-funded housing assistance, e.g., vouchers.

It’s not only potentially employable adults who’ve got to work. The task force rehashes the old complaint about the number of children who receive Supplemental Security Income benefits because they have severe disabilities.

They receive benefits for too long, it says — on average, 26.7 years, which doesn’t seem all that long to me. However, they won’t receive benefits any more, if the task force has its way.

It would “reform” the program so as to provide “access to needed services in lieu of cash assistance.” No recognition whatever of disabilities that make gainful work impossible — or the fact that parents of SSI recipients must often support them indefinitely.

The task force does acknowledge “challenges” work-able adults face — child care, for example, transportation, stable housing and “help buying groceries.”

What then should the federal government do? “Work with community partners,” i.e. nonprofits and for-profit businesses, “to address hurdles.” Period.

The federal government could, however, penalize states that didn’t get people out of safety net programs swiftly — hurdles notwithstanding. It would give them an incentive by ratcheting down reimbursement rates as people remain in the programs longer. Not a forthright proposal. The report again fluffs.

On a more positive note, the task force recommends providing work-readiness activities for noncustodial parents so as to increase their ability to pay child support.

It would also let states receive waivers from unemployment insurance rules so they could explore better ways to get UI recipients back into the workforce. Nothing to object to here, though one might after seeing those better ways.

More generally, the task force would, of course, give states more flexibility. It alludes to letting them link welfare programs — presumably as block grants, though it uses neither that term nor others House Republicans have come to prefer.

Those voluntary links nevertheless recall Ryan’s Opportunity Grants — those mega-block grants he floated nearly two years ago.

We also find what seems a block grant in the section on education. First we’re treated to the usual trashing on Head Start for failing to produce demonstrable, lasting academic outcomes — broadened, however, to apply to early childhood education programs generally.

Then a suggestion that the federal government could “combine investments,” streamlining and simplifying its involvement. Involvement here seems reduced to sponsoring research and sharing results.

Ryan appointed a separate task force to deal with tax reform. We’re nevertheless treated to a rehash of the now-familiar claim that safety net benefits discourage work because recipients lose them as they earn more.

We’ve little evidence that they actually respond to the so-called cliffs by working less — or for less money — than they could. Perhaps they know that they’d almost always do better by working and earning what they can.

Be that as it may, the task force has only two general solutions. One would increase the Earned Income Tax Credit. For whom and how it doesn’t say.

The other solution — yet again — is more state flexibility. This supposedly would enable states to tailor benefits packages so that no one lost more than they gained by working.

Most, as the report acknowledges, don’t lose — at least until they’re earning quite a bit. That’s feature, not a bug, of course, in programs intended to help low-income people meet their basic needs. But it’s another dagger to thrust at the safety net.

Bottom line for me is that there isn’t much there there — to borrow from Gertrude Stein. Not, at least, much there there for us who’ve paid any attention to what House Republicans — Ryan in particular — have proposed and tried to justify ever since they gained a majority.

 

 

 


Obama Administration Stirs Up Storm by Offering States Flexibility to Test New Work Strategies

July 23, 2012

About two weeks ago, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services invited states to seek waivers from some of the restrictions in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families rules.

No waiver from the five-year lifetime limit on per-family costs the federal government will partly pay for. No waiver for anything that seems likely to make enrollment even more difficult than it often already is.

But states can ask for waivers from the regular work activity requirements if they offer a promising alternative approach to “helping parents successfully prepare for, find and retain employment,” plus outcome-focused targets and related evaluation plans.

You’d think Republicans would stand up and cheer. Aren’t they constantly telling us states need more flexibility to “design programs around the needs of their own citizens?”

Not apparently when the Obama administration offers it.

Congressman Dave Camp (R-MI), Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), the highest ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, promptly raised a public fuss.

They assert that the Secretary has no authority to grant waivers from the work requirements. And what I’ve read thus far suggests there may be a genuine legal question here.

But as a policy matter, the waivers make a lot of sense.

As things stand now, TANF rules require states to ensure that half the parents in their caseloads are engaged, generally for an average of 30 hours a week, in one or some combination of work activities. These are also specified in the rules.

Doesn’t matter whether the activities are appropriately tailored to the individual needs and skills of the participants.

Doesn’t matter whether they’re likely to lead to reasonably secure jobs that pay enough to “end … dependence on public benefits” — one of the four major goals of the law.

It’s the participation rate and hours that count.

And documenting these takes time caseworkers could be using to help parents move from welfare to suitable work. Many states have complained about this, the Acting Assistant Secretary responsible for TANF says.

The activities requirement, however, also gives them an incentive to short-circuit training and other services in favor of pushing parents into the first job — any job — they can find.

They’re off TANF, but into “unstable, no-benefits, low-wage jobs,” says Legal Momentum in one of its many research-based briefs.

Experts have recommended for some years that Congress refocus the TANF work component on outcomes instead of activities when it reauthorizes the program.

Reauthorization is now nearly two years overdue. And Congress won’t get to it this year for sure.

The waivers would provide a basis for informed decisions — results of actual experiments, in fact — when it finally does take up the task.

The HHS Secretary has suggested some projects states might want to try. Hard to believe these wouldn’t improve outcomes, if designed and managed well.

For example, states could:

  • See what happens if they let at least some participants fulfill their work activity requirements in vocational training or vocation-related education beyond the current one-year limit. We know, anecdotally, what a huge difference this could make.
  • Count toward their participation rate requirement parents in jobs subsidized by TANF funds, even though they’re not getting cash benefits. In other words, revive one of the more popular uses of the now-expired TANF Emergency Contingency Fund.
  • Strengthen linkages between TANF and their other workforce development programs. Utah, Senator Hatch’s home state, indicated interest in this last year — and has reportedly jumped at the chance for a waiver.
  • Improve collaborations between these programs and their postsecondary education systems so that participants could pursue “multi-year career pathways” that combine work and learning.
  • Adopt new strategies for more effectively serving people with disabilities, including participation and outcome measures designed specifically for them.

None of these ideas is revolutionary. Nor are the others the waiver memo mentions.

And it should be pretty obvious that they don’t “gut welfare reforms,” as Senator Hatch claims, echoing the ferociously right-wing Heritage Foundation.

They don’t even do away with the link between welfare and work, as Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney alleges, because work and preparation for work are at the core of the waiver initative.

LaDonna Pavetti at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities speaks from years of experience with TANF. The pilot projects states can run with the waivers, she says, “will strengthen welfare reform and the ability of states to move parents from welfare to work.”

What’s wrong with that — except that the effort comes from Democrats?