The Flawed U.S. Safety Net System & What States Can Do About It w Leslie Ford | Let People Prosper Episode 48
Today, I'm honored to be joined by Leslie Ford, adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute’s Center on Opportunity and Social Mobility and a senior fellow with the Alliance for Opportunity.
1) The history of the war on poverty, how safety net programs have evolved, and where the war on poverty stands today;
2) How safety net programs can discourage upward mobility and keep people trapped in poverty through penalties such as those on marriage; and
3) Data on what requirements help safety net recipients achieve long-lasting self-sufficiency and prosperity, and more.
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Did you know there’s a state park in Arkansas where you can search for diamonds—real diamonds? And you get to keep what you find. In April, Adam Hardin was visiting Crater of Diamonds State Park and came across a 2.38 carat stone—the largest found so far this year.
Diamonds can be found in the 37-acre plowed field, but naturally, they’re rare. It’s a little like the successes that can be seen in our nearly 60-year-old War on Poverty: valuable, but rare.
Nationally, about $25 trillion (adjusted for inflation) have been spent to combat poverty since 1964 when President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty engendered the Great Society. However, the country’s poverty rate was declining before 1964 but remained virtually unchanged since then, suggesting a failure of these redistributionist measures.
But over the years, we’ve learned much. And we know what works in combatting poverty. We also know which key institutions and factors contribute to keeping people in poverty. With good policy—and clearer objectives—we can reverse this trend and truly lift people out of debilitating circumstances that lead to generational poverty.
But first, a little history. The 1920–21 recession was the last major economic downturn in American history that was not met with federal intervention designed to stabilize the economy and mitigate poverty. A decade later, Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt presided over the first large-scale and nationwide anti-poverty measures during the 1930s and the Great Depression.
Despite these large-scale interventions, the unemployment rate remained in double digits for the remainder of the 1930s. More people were dependent on new government programs, and the costly economic effects of these and other government actions reduced both productivity and job creation.
A quarter century later, President Lyndon B. Johnson advocated his War on Poverty as part of domestic policy initiatives commonly called the Great Society. But again, poverty relief programs did not substantially accelerate the poverty rate’s reduction—in fact, the rate of decline slowed before essentially stalling.
Why? Because these efforts failed to address the real drivers of poverty—in many instances, they became drivers of poverty themselves.
There are several factors that are strongly linked with continued poverty and an inability to build income and wealth. The most powerful predictor of poverty in general is single motherhood. Another factor is where you live (including all 41 Texas counties within 100 miles of the U.S.-Mexican border, considered “persistently poor”). And age is also a factor in poverty, but its impact varies depending on other group characteristics. Metro areas with a younger Black population have higher poverty rates, while areas with an older Black population have lower poverty rates.
But possibly the most pertinent factor in keeping people trapped in poverty is an incentive not to work or to be more productive. For example, a “benefits cliff” occurs when a safety-net recipient goes back to work, increases their workload, or accepts a higher rate of pay, resulting in increased total earned income—which then triggers a greater loss of payments from government programs.
What works? Work. Employment, in general, drives down poverty.
By connecting people to work, education, or training, enhancing community-based case management, streamlining safety-net programs, and getting resources to those who need it most, we can create more opportunities for people to be self-sufficient—and thereby reduce the number of Americans experiencing poverty—so long as we have the will, perseverance, and right approach.
Finding diamonds in a field of dirt isn’t easy; nor is providing people with a real path out of poverty. But with diligence, and a keen eye, we can see more and more success.
Poverty is often misunderstood because most people do not know who qualifies as poor, how much governmental assistance is available to the poor, or what allows people to escape poverty. Understanding this is crucial to provide more opportunities for work-capable people to attain self-sufficiency with a flourishing civil society as a first resort and effective government programs as a last.
• Poverty has long been a public policy concern with roughly $25 trillion (adjusted for inflation) spent on it by governments in the U.S. just since the 1960s’ Great Society in an attempt to help people move out of poverty
• But this sort of primary financial assistance by governments has not substantially mitigated poverty and too often made it worse through dependency on government programs.
• Instead, there should be a more holistic approach to effectively mitigate poverty through work, community, and opportunity to provide people with long-term self-sufficiency.
• Texas and the U.S. can do this with a flourishing civil society and a robust economy as a first resort and effective government programs as a last resort instead of spending more on the current flawed approach.
When Uvea was 9, Oregon’s foster care agency couldn’t find a placement in-state, so it sent her to Montana—to a poorly supervised facility where she was drugged, physically restrained and verbally abused by facility staff.
“Can I say the two words she called me?” Uvea asked a lawmaker during a later legislative hearing. “They made me feel very uncomfortable. She called me a pervert and a prostitute.”
Remember, she was 9 at the time. Untold damage was done to the young girl—but one thing came of it that will benefit all Oregon foster children. Her story sparked an effort to reform Oregon’s child welfare programs, beginning with an efficiency audit. Following the audit, every single child placed out-of-state was brought back to Oregon without increasing the number of foster homes, simply because the state learned how to use its resources more efficiently. And that Montana facility has been shut down.
Today, Uvea is 11 years old and living in what she recently told state lawmakers is “the best foster home” she’s ever been in.
Too many government programs aren’t achieving their intended purpose. This doesn’t serve the intended recipients—like Uvea—or the taxpayers well. Next session, the Texas Legislature can utilize effective and powerful independent efficiency audits to determine how programs, including Child Protective Services, are performing, where waste can be cut, and what outcomes can be improved.
While traditional financial audits can uncover evidence of malfeasance, they only look at the money trail. An efficiency audit goes even further, investigating whether funds are being used for their intended purpose and whether they’re being spent efficiently toward desired outcomes. Bringing in an independent, private sector auditor, rather than the state’s auditor, prevents a potential collusive situation between government entities and provides a fresh perspective that can identify innovative solutions, counteracting the myopic tendencies of government bureaucracy.
Last session, the Texas Public Policy Foundation identified the need for independent efficiency audits of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), which contains CPS. Both TANF and DFPS have had problems achieving their intended goals.
DFPS is a major recipient of TANF dollars in Texas, which is intended to help strengthen families and promote self-sufficiency. DFPS is also responsible for administering the state’s foster care system. In response to the ongoing foster care crisis, the Legislature increased appropriations to the agency. Our internal analysis of corresponding DFPS expenditures raised significant concerns regarding the appropriateness and efficacy of those dollars spent.
Specifically, our analysis found that a significant portion of these funds were not getting to the families most in need. Rather, one third of the roughly $1 billion annually in TANF funds are allocated to DFPS, yet half of that third goes to administrative and overhead expenses—things like staff salaries and IT services. That’s money that could have otherwise been used towards its stated intent to help needy Texans.
Why was this happening?
TANF is primarily funded through a block grant from the federal government, with the rest funded by the state. States have flexibility in how they administer and distribute that funding. While this flexibility can be helpful, DFPS used TANF dollars to fill budget gaps rather than meet its goals. This misuse of TANF dollars by the department revealed a need to investigate whether other agencies were engaging in similar behavior.
When we advocated for the use of an independent efficiency audit, we specifically sought to investigate how well both TANF and DFPS were doing at achieving the intended goals of helping Texas families move from dependence to self-sufficiency.
Under the new laws passed in 2021 (HB 1516 and HB 2374), that question must be answered every four years before the start of a legislative session. Doing so allows legislators to critique agency appropriations requests more knowledgeably and to ensure taxpayer resources are generating intended outcomes.
Because these audits must stay within the bounds of current resources available to each department or agency, taxpayers are assured these efforts will not be used to grow government, but rather evaluate how government could be improved, reformed, or cut. Identifying opportunities to consolidate efforts across separate agencies for example, or when a governmental function might be performed more successfully by a community provider, can provide legislators and the public with solutions that will lead to better services to beneficiaries at lower costs to taxpayers.
Oregon, Wyoming, and Kansas are states that have made great strides because of their respective efficiency audits. Louisiana, likewise, recently did an internal efficiency audit of TANF, which the legislative auditor found much needed improvement to achieve the intended goals.
Texas Legislators should bring efficiency audits to every aspect of government to generate better outcomes and save taxpayer resources. Little children like Uvea are counting on them.
In recent years, there’s been a growing consensus that the “Success Sequence” is a key pathway to avoiding poverty. Unfortunately, this prevailing theory doesn’t fully account for circumstances beyond one’s control. We need a more holistic approach to poverty prevention and alleviation.
Brookings Institution fellows Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill originally coined the “Success Sequence” in their book, Creating an Opportunity Society. The sequence notes that if you finish high school, get a full-time job, and marry before kids (in that order), you’re more likely to avoid poverty.
However, while research finds a strong correlation between this sequence and avoiding poverty (97% of Millennials), proof of causation has been more elusive, leaving gaps in how to achieve lasting poverty relief.
The Success Sequence doesn’t account for adverse situations beyond one’s control, such as the diminishing value of a high school diploma, availability of full-time jobs, accessibility to the workforce by the formerly incarcerated, and affordability of housing.
Today, one might do everything “right” and still experience poverty. Ultimately, the path to long-term poverty relief includes—but is not limited to—the Success Sequence.
To maximize opportunities for success, policies should remove obstacles often imposed by governments. This includes ensuring abundant job opportunities, addressing workforce and affordability issues, and streamlining safety nets.
Doing so would allow safety nets to fulfill their purpose as a trampoline to quickly spring people back into self-sufficiency rather than as a hammock that traps recipients into a cycle of dependency on government.
Recently, the Texas Public Policy Foundation launched the Alliance for Opportunity initiative with our friends at the Georgia Center for Opportunity and the Pelican Institute in Louisiana. This initiative promotes a strategic policy roadmap for these states that in many ways supplements the Success Sequence. It does so by working to keep vulnerable Americans on track, ensure everyone has a right to earn a living, and address poverty through the justice system.
One way is to reform education systems so that career and technical education funding is individualized and institutional funding is tied to employment and wage outcomes. Doing so will ensure students are better prepared for today’s jobs.
Consider the return-value funding model for the Texas State Technical College, a two-year institution with an emphasis on technical programs geared toward post-graduation employment. They partner with businesses, government agencies, and other education institutions to coordinate career development routes for students.
Notably, the Texas Legislature established an outcomes-based funding model for TSTC based on the annual wages of its graduates five years after graduation. Legislators across the country should utilize similar competency-based models to improve employment outcomes.
Policymakers should also be looking for ways to reduce or to remove burdensome occupational licensing requirements and encourage paid apprenticeships throughout the education system in order to protect the right to work and maximize the skills for in-demand jobs.
Occupational licensing overall has been shown to restrict the labor market, presenting a significant cost of entry to work, even as there is limited evidence that licenses increase the quality of goods, services, or public safety. States should instead look to implement a systematic process of identifying and removing overburdensome licensing regulations through processes such as a sunset review, while expanding universal recognition of licenses obtained in other states with similar requirements.
Moreover, lawmakers should align education and workforce programs to ensure students are able to learn and earn wages as they work. By improving the availability of paid apprenticeships, states can maximize opportunities to find meaningful education and employment. The State of Georgia’s program recently had more than 60% of youth apprentices receive a full-time job offer from their employer upon completion.
Finally, for those workers who lose a job unexpectedly, as 22 million Americans did during the government-imposed shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, legislators should reduce disincentives to work by revamping and streamlining safety net programs.
One of the most common reasons recipients are discouraged from pursuing better employment outcomes is the “benefits cliff.” Because of the setup of safety-net programs, many recipients find that a small increase in earnings will result in a large loss of benefits. This creates a vicious cycle of dependency and despair.
States must flatten these “cliffs” by leveraging their flexibility with block grant programs and waivers in federal law while keeping the programs tied to work, training, or education, such as an empowerment accounts pilot program.
The Success Sequence is a noble, beneficial approach to help avoid poverty, but ultimately its application has gaps that should not be taken for granted. With the Alliance’s strategic policy roadmap, we hope to provide an improved situation with more opportunities in a flourishing civil society that helps those in need achieve financial self-sufficiency, dignity, and purpose faster and longer.
Vance Ginn, Ph.D.