Empowering Caseworkers to Help Those in Need
The federal government’s allocation of taxpayer dollars toward reducing poverty has never been higher. Yet many American families remain trapped in a welfare system that is unresponsive to their needs. How can this be?
Some conservatives suspect liberals want to waste money on failed programs; some liberals suspect conservatives may not care for those in need. The suspicions and lack of trust often leave us at a policy impasse with an ineffective status quo. We cannot reform ineffective programs; we cannot reallocate resources to programs that might work. Meanwhile, the economically disadvantaged suffer.
My solution is The People Centered Assistance Reform Effort (CARE) Act, which I recently introduced in Congress. The idea is simple. Establish a commission to realign the 92 current welfare programs. Such a commission could help to bypass Washington’s political dynamics. Republicans and Democrats would have equal representation (4+4), no new programs or spending could be added, and no spending could be cut.
Working together they could redesign current programs to eliminate benefit cliffs, empower caseworkers, encourage employment, strengthen families, and further educational attainment. Decades of jurisdictional battles between various Congressional committees and interest groups have established a disjointed system that has separate executive agencies creating duplicative regulations for duplicative programs. The result is an inefficient system that makes our safety net harder to access, harder to evaluate, and harder to administer.
Multiple government programs and agencies have confusing rules and onerous procedures hindering their intended purpose. For example, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is managed by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which has over 57 agency rules on reporting and recordkeeping requirements and 44 rules on administrative practice and procedure. Caseworkers and recipients of these programs almost need a law degree to understand the constantly changing rulebook. We need to streamline administrative budgets to empower caseworkers on the frontlines.
More basically, when someone in need of assistance meets with a caseworker, the caseworker is often limited to administering a specific program (by statute). The caseworker is inhibited from holistically understanding the person’s circumstances and helping them in a person-centered approach that could access the most effective programs that may help the person in need.
Currently, when those who need help look for assistance, they face a bewildering scheme of 92 separate means-tested welfare programs. They are also confronted with a system with significant benefit cliffs. In an analysis of six major welfare programs, the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce found that a $1 increase in salary from $33,534 to $33,535 can cause a $4,254 loss in benefits for a family. Individuals on our safety net programs should never have less money because they accept a pay raise.
Solutions to poverty must use research-based approaches that focus on guiding families out of poverty instead of simply administering programs. We should empower caseworkers, who are on the front lines, to have access to the tools and resources necessary to accomplish the mission of our safety net programs.
As the most charitable nation in the world, Americans are clearly willing to help those in need. We value a safety net for our neighbors, however, it is long overdue to make sure that our safety net programs serve as a ladder to realizing the American Dream, not a snare trapping people in tough circumstances. The People CARE Act provides a path forward. Social workers, small business owners, and poverty assistance non-profits across Ohio support of the People CARE Act. For the sake of American families trapped in our unresponsive welfare system, national leaders should enthusiastically support passage of the People CARE Act.