Connecting state and local government leaders

Looming Work Requirements Demand A New Approach to Government Assistance

President Trump has called for agencies to find ways to increase work expectations in all economic assistance programs including SNAP, better known as food stamps.

President Trump has called for agencies to find ways to increase work expectations in all economic assistance programs including SNAP, better known as food stamps. Jonathan Weiss /


Connecting state and local government leaders

COMMENTARY | Instituting work requirements does not mean that people get jobs, keep jobs, or advance in jobs. The focus needs to be kept on the end game—economic stability and mobility—not administrative indicators.

In an April executive order, President Trump called for agencies to find ways to increase work expectations and integrated approaches across all economic assistance programs. Work requirements are increasingly likely to become part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, Housing Assistance and even the Child Support Enforcement Program.

While new work requirements will spark significant political and public debate, this new policy direction can build off of tangible learnings from those implemented for the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families over two decades ago. A few key lessons, in particular, will inform whether these reforms lead to effective employment strategies deployed in a non-punitive manner. In fact, if work requirements spread, the future of economic mobility depends on us taking these lessons to heart.

While TANF monthly caseloads decreased from 4.4 million families in 1996 to 1.1 million families in 2017, it’s unclear how many of these families left TANF for work. One point of agreement is that in the immediate aftermath of the passage of then-President Clinton’s “welfare reform” bill, the TANF caseload saw immediate reductions in the late 1990s, which have been attributed to the strong economy. The full employment economy of today likewise bodes well for the individuals typically at the margins and not actively engaged in the talent development pipeline.

However, instituting work requirements does not mean that people get jobs, keep jobs, or advance in jobs. Over the first couple of years after passage of the TANF changes, almost every welfare agency in the country rebranded as an employment program.  The law created a new and different service delivery system, often primarily focused on getting individuals into “allowable work activities.”

Many states’ “Work First” efforts centered on ensuring rapid labor market attachment. However, many participants could not retain employment and cycled through the system, resulting in a high level of recidivism. Real jobs do matter. Jobs with real opportunity for wage growth and advancement is important to long-term economic stability of families and their potential for economic mobility.

That is why it is important to establish metrics that measure outcomes that you care about and are related to the success we want to see. With TANF, the Work Participation Rate (WPR) became the benchmark for a state’s success in carrying out its responsibility to get individuals jobs. Meeting that measure was necessary if the state did not want to potentially bear the wrath of federal financial penalties.

That focus on WPR shifted attention from employment, earnings, and family economic stability to complex data reporting and accountability mechanisms. Twenty some years after the passage of Clinton’s welfare overhaul, the pendulum seems to have swung back to the center, recognizing the need for a holistic approach to meet the needs of the entire family, including support for non-custodial parents.

There are numerous efforts under way to address issues of intergenerational poverty, specifically focused on “whole family” approaches. Today, there is also a greater understanding of the interrelated dependency among the various social services, health and workforce systems with which these families are involved, and the need for these systems to integrate better.

The recent work in brain science has documented the potential impact of trauma, toxic stress and poverty on the executive functioning capabilities of low-income individuals. Understanding how these issues manifest themselves on the front lines in social services and workforce agencies is critical.

For instance, we have learned the importance of utilizing comprehensive assessments that provide a complete picture of the individual and family, the need to conduct these assessments with the appropriate trauma informed practices and the benefit of training our front lines in this fight in “motivational interviewing” techniques so to best equip them to be effective in moving from a case management model to a “coaching” model.

More broadly, we have also learned that poverty cannot be solved in silos. Collaboration across programs within government, across sectors, and with employers and key community stakeholders are critical. There has been an increase in the use of Public-Private-Partnerships (P3) to design, develop and implement these social solutions, as well as a rise of Social Enterprise Organizations in supporting individuals and families as they transition from public benefits to finding a pathway to economic stability and mobility.

Ultimately, though, the focus needs to be kept on the end game—economic stability and mobility—and not on interim administrative indicators. Complex and bureaucratic requirements for determining “work” and challenging reporting systems will result in work requirements failing. Technology can go a long way in providing a simplified approach to reporting and work verification systems.

Now is the time to think about how to leverage these learnings to inspire the change we want to see: increased economic mobility pathways for individuals and families living on the margins of the economy.

Achieving this economic mobility might very well depend on creating a broader lens. Social Determinants of Health can be used to frame this new practice model that is strengths-based and reflective of the broad array of issues that impact individual and family well-being. Utilizing a comprehensive assessment could effectively identify barriers to self-sufficiency, provide referrals to community-based supportive services, link individuals to real employment opportunities, and increase the odds of successful and sustainable employment while increasing the overall health and wellness of individuals and families.

Addressing some of the fundamental issues of poverty through a health and wellness paradigm could remove some of the stigma associated with poverty for low-income individuals and families. It could also buttress against some of today’s social and political intolerance of “being poor” and possibly create true pathways to economic stability and mobility.

Jeanette M. Hercik, a senior vice president at ICF, specializes in anti-poverty research and the reengineering of U.S. federal and state public sector systems. Joe Raymond is a fellow in the health, education and social programs division at ICF.

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