A Partnership that Helps State Governments Help the Working Poor
By By Patrick McCarthy | President & CEO, The Annie E. Casey Foundation
Across the country, states are contending with a challenging reality: How to effectively help growing numbers of struggling families when safety net budgets are shrinking.
It’s clear that more families need help. In 2011, the child poverty rate stood at 23 percent overall, or 16.4 million children, and 26 percent for children younger than 3, according to the 2013 KIDS COUNT® report released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. That’s an increase of 3 million poor children since 2005. And the number of children whose parents lacked full-time, year-round employment was 18 percent higher than in 2008.
Year after year, research reveals the growing chasm between rich and poor, white families and families of color, and children born to privilege and those born into poverty.
The Corporation for Enterprise Development, in its latest annual Assets & Opportunity Scorecard, found close to half of U.S. households—44 percent—are “liquid asset poor,” meaning they lack sufficient savings to withstand a three-month loss of income. The story was especially disturbing for households of color, which were almost twice as likely as white households to be liquid asset poor.
Smart policy choices can make a real difference for a low-income family, while encouraging attachment to the workforce. For example, federal and state earned income tax credits can provide a small cushion, helping the family make ends meet, pay down debt and begin to accumulate savings. Health insurance, nutrition assistance and child care subsidies decrease the burden on a stretched family budget and give the family a realistic shot at moving up the economic ladder. But, first, the family needs to be able to easily and efficiently access the benefits they are entitled to receive.
That’s where a unique public/philanthropic partnership comes in. Work Support Strategies: Streamlining Access, Strengthening Families offers significant multiyear grants to states willing to overhaul their inefficient bureaucracies. The partnership is funded largely by the Ford Foundation and directed by the Urban Institute in partnership with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Open Society Foundations and the Kresge Foundation also are participating.
This approach does not involve increasing benefits or adding new government programs. It is not partisan. Rather, it demonstrates how philanthropic organizations can play a supportive role at a time when states with severely strained budgets are being asked to help so many hard-pressed residents.
The initiative aims to make public programs more efficient, boosting the share of families who receive and keep all the public benefits for which they qualify, while minimizing the administrative burdens on states to deliver those benefits. Successful approaches then are disseminated to inform state and federal policies and practices.
The Work Support Strategies initiative began in 2010 with 27 states competing for first-year planning grants to find ways to reduce administrative burdens in order to deliver benefits more effectively and efficiently. The states identified problems in their own systems, including overloaded staff, outdated computer systems and inflexible practices.
Nine states were selected for the planning phase after review by an advisory committee, which included experts from the National Governors Association and National Conference of State Legislatures. Then, last year, six states were awarded three-year grants to test and implement their ideas for fast delivery, easy-to-navigate public benefit systems. The six states—Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, North Carolina, Rhode Island and South Carolina—have now completed the first year of implementation.
It’s been a successful debut:
State and county staff in Colorado slashed a 26-page application for Medicaid, welfare, food assistance and adult financial support down to eight pages.
North Carolina conducted a pilot in two counties, allowing workers to use income information from nutrition assistance to determine child care eligibility, aligning the certification periods and simplifying the process for families and state workers.
In South Carolina, Express Lane Redetermination helped sustain health coverage for tens of thousands of children and is projected to save $1 million a year by using data in families’ nutrition program records to certify children’s eligibility.
Idaho amended its application for child care subsidies to improve processing and reduce the number of eligible families losing assistance during recertification. Idaho also put its phone system in the cloud, allowing workers anywhere in the state to take applicant calls.
Rhode Island implemented same-day service for applicants seeking nutrition assistance, enabling certain clients to obtain benefits with just one visit.
Illinois transformed local office practices in the face of overwhelming caseloads, developing strategies that successfully distributed tasks across work teams.
From the beginning, the states have recognized the difficulties low-income families face when navigating complex, duplicative and bureaucratic public benefit systems. Many low-income households depend on these programs to stay in the workforce as they strive to climb the economic ladder, yet find it excessively time-consuming and difficult to meet the procedural demands for eligibility while holding down one or more jobs to make ends meet. Many families also lose benefits when they need to recertify eligibility, only to reapply a month or two later. This churning leads to additional cost to the state and an extra burden for the families.
So why did the states need Work Support Strategies to make these improvements? As the Ford Foundation recently noted, state agencies may have money on hand to provide benefits, but the flexible funding to promote ongoing innovation, modernize operating processes and use data to improve operational effectiveness has all but vanished.
And that’s where philanthropies can help. Foundations fear being dragged into ideological fights, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for successful and well-designed partnerships with public agencies. Foundations clearly can help state agencies with the kind of technical assistance and peer learning that forms the heart of Work Support Strategies. The initiative also relies on three of Casey’s key approaches to helping families: policy reform, service system reform and front-line practice reform.
All this means Work Support Strategies is a win-win strategy, reducing poverty and promoting opportunity while also improving government operations. It’s a great model.