BY: Justin Haskins | Heartland Institute

Arguably the single most successful endeavor undertaken by Congress in the past 20 years was its effort to enact significant reform of the U.S. welfare system. Even greater success is possible, with simple steps that states can take to help millions of impoverished people transition from government dependency to the freedom and self-sufficiency provided by a high-quality job.

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996, produced extraordinary results. Prior to its passage, there were 12.4 million Americans on welfare rolls, but as of October 2014, only 3.4 million remain in welfare — a decline of 73 percent.

While welfare enrollment did start to slide before the implementation of PRWORA, notably in Michigan and Wisconsin, much of the government’s success in battling poverty over the past two decades is properly attributed to the enactment by myriad states of reforms PRWORA made possible. These include work requirements, time limits for benefits, family caps, and job training.

PRWORA opened the door for states to experiment with their welfare systems in ways previously not possible, but some have been notably more successful than others at helping impoverished Americans move out of welfare programs, which were designed to provide temporary assistance only, and into self-sustaining employment.

In a recent study by the Heartland Institute, researchers analyzed the welfare programs of every state and assigned grades in several important areas to reveal which state governments have made the changes needed to help lift their impoverished citizens out of the seemingly endless cycle of poverty.

Academic research on the effectiveness of welfare-reform programs is ongoing and complex, but available evidence strongly correlates specific policies all states can enact with successful, proven outcomes. Heartland’s experts estimate that if every state currently ranked among the bottom 25 states in its report card were to enact the reforms many of the top 25 states have already established, U.S. welfare rolls could plummet by as many as 2 million recipients, ushering in a new era of American self-sufficiency and prosperity.

Heartland’s researchers found that one important reform is requiring work or work-related activities once a recipient qualifies for aid. This requirement serves two important functions: First, it guarantees that every able-bodied recipient receives helpful job training and résumé-building work experience. Second, it encourages and motivates recipients to seek a better, higher-paying job opportunity outside of a welfare program as soon as one is presented. Workers who face no or limited work requirements often lack the soft skills needed to move from dependency to self-sufficiency, such as showing up on time, taking directives from managers, and getting along with co-workers.

A second meaningful and often-overlooked reform is service integration. Those serious about welfare reform know that many barriers are responsible for prolonged periods of poverty. A lack of job training, transportation challenges, and drug and alcohol dependency can all prevent recipients from achieving self-sufficiency. States that enact successful welfare-reform programs integrate services that treat these and other common problems so that recipients can more easily obtain needed assistance and so that case managers have better oversight.

In states such as Maryland, which received a service-integration grade of “D” in the report card, Medicaid, job training, child care, drug- and alcohol-abuse programs, and other vital services remain in departments separate from other human services, and recipients are often required to go to numerous offices, fill out multiple piles of paperwork, and deal with a complicated maze of bureaucracy that many are unable to navigate.

Welfare’s only purpose ought to be to lift people from the grips of government dependency into a life of self-sufficiency. Most reforms are simple and cost-effective measures that states of every size and political persuasion have already put into place, and as the report card shows, a state’s budget has virtually no effect on the ability of the state to implement necessary welfare-policy changes.

Effective state welfare programs can remove barriers that prevent recipients from attaining high-quality employment. Welfare shouldn’t be about establishing government programs that do something to people, but rather programs that do something for people. Welfare’s only purpose ought to be to lift them from the grips of government dependency into a life of self-sufficiency. Instead, it often shackles the impoverished and encourages them to remain in a state of squalor rather than make the difficult but worthwhile trek to prosperity.

Justin Haskins is The Heartland Institute’s editor. 

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