The simple reform Congress can make to move millions from welfare to work

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Congress has a chance to help millions of Americans move from welfare to work while fixing one of the country’s most broken federal programs.

Lawmakers are preparing to reauthorize the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which controls the vast and failed federal workforce-development system.

Instead of doubling down on the longstanding approach of wasting money without connecting people to jobs, Congress should empower states to integrate workforce development and the safety net — ensuring people who get taxpayers’ help are quickly moved into gainful employment.

Our home states of Texas and Louisiana want this authority, and the Texas legislature called on Congress to give it last year.

Our states simply want to follow the lead of Utah.

Since 1997, Utah has used federal workforce-development funding to build a system that’s integrated with welfare.

Yet in 1998, Congress banned other states from taking this road, making workforce programs far less effective while trapping more people in government dependence.

Utah’s model is exceptional.

If you’re a Utah resident applying for unemployment insurance, food stamps, Medicaid or cash welfare, you have to go through the state’s Department of Workforce Services.

Your case worker helps you access the safety net while developing a personalized plan of action to help you back into a good-paying job as quickly as possible.

The system is purpose-built to help people move past tough times to better days.

Utah is thriving because of its carveout.

Everyone from US News and World Report to the American Legislative Exchange Council agrees that Utah’s economy is America’s strongest.

It has rock-bottom unemployment, the highest state labor-force participation rate in the country and a poverty rate of 8.6%, compared with 12.8% nationally.

What’s more, Utah recovered from the pandemic faster than any other state, replacing nearly two jobs for every one that was lost — the best record in the nation.

That’s what happens when states make a deliberate effort to help people move from welfare to work.

Why block other states from taking this proven path?

In 1998, Congress correctly recognized that federal workforce programs were wildly expensive yet woefully ineffective, but instead of giving states the authority to fix this problem by designing better programs, lawmakers merely gave Washington more control while grandfathering Utah’s model. 

The result has been more failure.

In fiscal year 2022, federal workforce development cost nearly $4 billion, yet its beneficiaries often got worse-paying jobs than they had before participating.

The programs are also known for misrepresenting their effectiveness, saying people got jobs when they didn’t actually seek help.

In Louisiana, a recent state audit found that most participants earn less after going through a workforce-development program.

These programs fail not only because of one-size-fits-all federal control but a lack of coordination with the safety net.

The more than 40 million Americans on food stamps and 80 million on Medicaid typically aren’t connected to workforce development, dwarfing the number who find such opportunities on their own.

Such separation ensures that millions of people stay on welfare when they could and should be guided toward work.

Utah proves that when state leaders have the authority to design their own workforce programs and integrate them with the safety net, they create a system that’s far more effective at helping people get back to work. 

In November, Utah Rep. Burgess Owens introduced the One Door to Work Act, which would amend the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act to free states from these federal handcuffs. 

They could use federal workforce-development funding to create a truly integrated one-stop shop like Utah’s.

They could also design their own innovative system, so long as they prove they can get better results than the current mess.

As Utah shows, when state officials — not federal bureaucrats — are in the driver’s seat, they can innovate and achieve superior results.

It helps to know the people you’re serving.

Every state deserves the flexibility to move their citizens from welfare to work.

It wouldn’t cost federal taxpayers an extra penny, and in fact, it would likely save taxpayers significant money by getting people off the government dole.

It’s time the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act actually empowered states to pursue innovation and spur opportunity, creating booming economies that benefit the least fortunate the most. 

Greg Sindelar is CEO of the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Daniel J. Erspamer is CEO of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy. Their organizations are part of the Alliance for Opportunity.



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