Louisiana’s collection of safety-net programs needs a paradigm shift so its low-income, work capable citizens can move out of dependency on government and find hope and lasting self-sufficiency. This starts with connecting people with a job, which is the best path to prosperity. Work brings dignity, hope, and purpose through the life-long benefits of earning a living, gaining skills, and building social capital.
Louisiana’s poverty rate in 2022 was nearly 20%, the highest in the nation, with more than 800,000 people receiving government aid. Our state needs smart, evidence-based solutions to our vast social safety-net system that will assist our poor while simultaneously setting them on the road to self-sufficiency. Our current social safety net isn’t really a system at all. It’s a vast array of separate programs, each with unique parameters for qualification and a plethora of paperwork. Most importantly, none of these programs lead to the dignity of work and a life of flourishing.
In the 1996 “Welfare Reform,” cash and food assistance programs came with work requirements and time limits. However, over the years, many of these requirements were rolled back or made ineffective. Shortly after this reform, Utah devised an integrated social safety net and workforce system that assisted individuals while they also looked for work. This system works as a “one stop shop” that houses all the workforce development and safety net programs, except Medicaid, under the umbrella of one department. This includes Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) services, employment services, vocational rehabilitation, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). This solution allows a prospective recipient to go to one office where they are linked to a navigator that reviews their situation, helps them qualify for all eligible assistance, and get set up in job training, education, or other workforce programs.
This approach to the social safety net system connects assistance with work and has led more people out of poverty than in any other state. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and shutdowns, Utah was the first state to get back to pre-pandemic employment levels, leading the nation in recovery with employment growth of 4.99% by April 2022. Another result has been improved service quality, increased administrative efficiencies, and cost savings, all of which have helped those in need get back on their feet more quickly.
Why haven’t other states adopted this model?
In 1998, Congress passed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) under the guise of better coordination of workforce services. This law prohibited other states from integrating their social services and workforce programs. Utah was grandfathered under this law. WIOA funding bypasses the state and goes directly to regional workforce boards which oversee the programming in each region of Louisiana. This creates a lack of coordination in job training, education, and other programs throughout the state.
Efforts are underway to have Congress enable other states to implement the Utah model, or something similar to it, should they wish to do so. If their efforts are successful, Louisiana should be prepared to consolidate and refocus its programs accordingly as soon as the federal government removes all roadblocks. It’s time for Louisiana to make significant improvements in lifting families out of poverty and empowering them and our state to thrive.