Federal, state, and local governments spend well over $1 trillion per year on nearly 130 means-tested programs for lower-income Americans. Most of this money is intended to help the 46 million Americans living in poverty, yet we have achieved only minimal advances in getting people on sound financial footing since the “War on Poverty” was declared more than 50 years ago. Instead of helping people become self-sufficient, many states have implemented policies that actually trap people in a loop of government dependency.
In recent weeks, the Kansas and Missouri legislatures each passed welfare reform bills that would help reduce welfare dependency and reward work by strengthening welfare work requirements and removing barriers to self-sufficiency. The tried-and-tested policies that have been effective at lifting people out of poverty since the passage of the 1996 Personal Responsibility Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act have largely been ignored.
Defenders of the status quo have tried to take the focus off measures that would actually help move people off welfare and into work, often diverting the discussion to one or two minor provisions they cast as draconian.
On April 16, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) signed the HOPE Act into law. Opponents of Kansas’s new welfare reform law tried to focus the public’s attention on its restrictions on where welfare recipients can use EBT cards, such as liquor stores and casinos. Gov. Jay Nixon (D) vetoed the Strengthening Missouri Families Act on Thursday, which would have enacted similar reforms in Missouri.
In The Heartland Institute’s 2015 Welfare Reform Report Card, Missouri scored an F and ranked dead last overall for its anti-poverty policies. Kansas scored slightly better, with a D+ at 32nd overall.
Like the Kansas law, the Missouri bill would have decreased the lifetime limits for welfare recipients in in the state, from 60 to 45 months. In recent years, many states have decreased their lifetime limits based on the theory five years of dependence on welfare can ingrain habits and lifestyles that make it very difficult to achieve self-sufficiency. Additionally, both the Kansas law and vetoed Missouri bill require TANF recipients to be engaged in work-related activities, a broad definition including not only full- or part-time employment but also on-the-job training, supervised community service, vocational education, and other activities.
The Missouri reforms would have established a “cash diversion program” intended to help prevent people suffering a short-term need from being placed in the welfare system and implement stricter sanctions for noncompliance with the work requirements.
A Rasmussen poll found a full 80 percent of Americans agree with the statement “work is the best solution for poverty.” According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, however, only 29.50 percent of TANF recipients are engaged in “work activities.” Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show out of 100 full-time working adults, only four live in poverty, and out of 100 part-time working adults, 15 live in poverty. It makes sense then to ensure successful anti-poverty reforms stress the importance of work.
The 2015 Welfare Reform Report Card also explains “work improves family well-being economically, by providing a stable source of income and the opportunity to acquire assets, as well as socially and culturally.”
Fifty years after the War on Poverty began, and half a decade after the Great Recession, too many Americans are not earning their way out of poverty because they are trapped in a system that makes it difficult to transition from welfare to work. Although each state is diverse with its own set of demographic and economic conditions, the most successful states have been those implementing policies and integrating in a coordinated, holistic, “one-stop” fashion the services needed to help recipients permanently move into the workplace.
As lawmakers in many states continue working to make things better for those living in poverty, the focus of these welfare reforms should be on policies stressing the primacy of work and independence, so that people will be lifted out of poverty, not remain there for generations on end.
Logan Pike (email@example.com) is a government relations manager for The Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank headquartered in Chicago, and a coauthor of Heartland’s 2015 Welfare Reform Report Card.