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The Role of Work in Workforce Development

This article is first in a series on the role that government programs play in workforce development.

With a century of experience delivering programs at the national, state, and local levels there are many critical learnings from the U.S. war on poverty. In 2017 we will spend over $1 trillion maintaining programs and introducing enhancements designed to combat poverty. According to 2015 U.S. Census Bureau data, over 43M Americans lived in poverty. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report demonstrated that the U.S. child-poverty rate is significantly higher than 30 other industrialized economies, placing us behind countries that include Poland, Mexico, and Estonia.

Most of those on low-income programs want to improve their situation, but they lack the enablers, skills, and relationship capital to gain self-sufficiency. Lack of childcare, access to transportation, poor public transportation, deficient career skills, and a low support structure are considerable barriers to prosperity. Contrary to the myth, most of those in poverty would choose to work, earn more money, and achieve their career potential.

What actually works in ending poverty? Surprise: Government programs

A study from the DC-based think tank The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities revealed that the near-halving of child-poverty is primarily due to government programs, especially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit. While many believe that economic expansion has served a primary contributor to child-poverty reduction, it only accounts for 2.3 percent of the overall drop.

Work Matters

The poverty rate is only 3 percent among full-time workers. For non-workers, it’s over 33 percent.

In 2016 there were 7.1 million adults enrolled in the Supplemental Security Income program for the poor, elderly, and disabled, and 8.9 million on Social Security Disability Insurance.

Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution explained, “Many states take steps to keep destitute families off welfare and do little to reach out to floundering mothers who are having difficulty juggling work and child-rearing. Simultaneously, states use the flexibility provided by TANF spending rules to spend the funds on social problems other than reducing destitution and supporting work programs. As a result, many fewer poor families receive a TANF cash payment today than in the years before welfare reform, and it appears that many families with children, especially those headed by a single mother, at the very bottom of the income distribution are worse off than before welfare reform.”

In their recent report, Opportunity, Responsibility, and Security, the American Enterprise Institute and Brookings Institution recommended that strong work requirements in welfare programs should not include sanctions that could lead to recipients being denied benefits unless they were offered a job or other “constructive activity” but refused to work. They advocate that the approach would reduce poverty for the U.S’ most vulnerable families.

In the next post in this series, I’ll talk about three “pathways to prosperity” — government programs that have demonstrated improved employment outcomes for those receiving social and/or workforce development services.