Keeping Vulnerable Americans on Track

Personalized for People

Plans that suit individual circumstances

A functioning safety net requires interaction with a flourishing civil society so that everyone, especially those near or in poverty, have the best opportunities to achieve their dreams.

The institutions of civil society—families, religious communities, charitable organizations, and other similar entities—are key to helping keep people out of poverty.

The current safety-net system in the U.S. is plagued by ineffectiveness and inefficiencies in payments and incentives for both recipients and providers. It often undermines the very institutions of civil society that are necessary for people escape poverty and truly flourish. For example, marriage penalties disincentivize the institution of marriage, which studies show is one of the better ways to escape poverty. Other factors, such as the loss of work in urban neighborhoods, have caused civic engagement to deteriorate, further undermining civil society. Local institutions know the needs of their neighbors. State and federal policies need to decentralize and encourage stronger families, more civic engagement, and other institutions of civil society.

Solving the Problems

The current system is paternalistic toward beneficiaries. Many on the left view the safety net through a lens of protecting the vulnerable from an oppressive economic system. Many on the right take the opposite outlook, focusing on individuals gaming the system: “welfare queens.”1Max Gulker, “The U.S. Welfare System’s Paternalistic History,” American Institute for Economic Research, June 3, 2019,

Both are incorrect approaches. Instead of attempting to handle the situation from the perspective of a parent believing they know better, expectations need to shift toward recognizing that safety-net recipients can achieve self-sufficiency.

Rather than assuming that those on safety-net programs need “policing,” we should expect that they are capable of making rational decisions and achieving independence. A reformed approach should emphasize a working relationship similar to that of a financial advisor and a high-net-worth client, or that of a doctor-patient in direct primary care. In each example, the relationship focuses more on extending advice and guidance to the recipient rather than micromanaging their portfolio or health.

Inherent to this shift is an expectation of responsible behavior on the part of recipients and a corresponding system of accountability. The client-centric approach provides the beneficiary with more freedom, autonomy, and trust, which requires that they, in turn, be good stewards of these resources. Such an accountability system is akin to a physician calling to check in on a patient following a procedure or a financial advisor scheduling regular portfolio reviews with their client. Both the patient and client are free to disregard the advice of the physician or financial advisor, but in doing so risk bearing the negative consequences of their choice. This analogy is not perfect, given that recipients are benefitting from social safety net programs funded by taxpayer dollars as opposed to their own resources. Accordingly, there should be strong negative consequences associated with failure to meet expectations and wasting limited resources.

These perspective changes take into account how clients have unique and substantial obstacles to employment, including disabilities, health problems, addiction, behavioral problems, and criminal records (which can prevent employment). We know that programs that are more tailored—emphasizing employment or human capital development depending on the individual—tend to lead to higher gains.2Dan Bloom and Charles Michalopoulos, How Welfare and Work Policies Affect Employment and Income: A Synthesis of Research (Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, 2001), 15,

These obstacles all require the client to participate in their unique path to independence. Assistance requires accountability, but the expectations discussed above should provide the beneficiary with more freedom, autonomy, and trust, which requires the beneficiary to be a good steward of these resources.

Addressing an individual’s needs also requires community-based caseworkers who partner with recipients. Caseworkers’ expertise, dedication, and compassion are essential to help individuals negotiate the welfare system. They are also invaluable in encouraging positive behaviors, putting recipients on a path toward self-sufficiency, and enforcing program integrity to ensure benefits go to the neediest in society.

Decentralizing the safety-net system requires transferring responsibility for delivering services to recipients from government agencies to local mediating structures like charities and other nonprofits. This is not to be understood as creating a new class of government-funded charitable organizations, but rather transferring services like job training and coaching as well as accountability functions from a cold, impersonal bureaucracy to the local community level. By applying the concept of subsidiarity—that essential social functions are most effective when performed at the lowest level possible—to the social safety net, we can increase its effectiveness at promoting self-sufficiency while cutting down on opportunities for waste, fraud, and abuse.   

Under this structure, community-based charitable organizations would be responsible for delivering services to recipients, leaving the government to merely control the distribution of funds and provide contract oversight of providers. In transferring these responsibilities, the local nonprofits administering programs would be held to stringent outcome-based accountability standards that prevent waste and ensure optimal outcomes for recipients. These metrics must require nonprofits to demonstrate success at moving recipients off the program and into sustainable self-sufficiency as quickly as possible.

How to implement

State Legislatures

  • By legislative or executive directive, states administering agencies should contract with community-based nonprofit organizations and measure their success based on outcomes.
  • All community-based programs and caseworkers must be measured based on outcomes.

Administrative Agencies

  • The administering agency would be responsible for monitoring the organizations for quality control.
  • Everyone receiving assistance is assigned to a community-based case manager (if feasible, they may be offered a choice).
  • All beneficiaries develop a written plan specific to them to improve their circumstance as a condition of assistance, which will include semiannual reviews.

Civil Society

  • The nonprofit organizations will provide life coaching. This should include financial literacy, how to budget, soft job skills, etc. For instance, once the job is accepted, it means showing up on time every day for work professionally dressed, conducting oneself in a professional manner, and striving to succeed. It means looking for ways to improve oneself and to learn skills demanded by the labor market. The life coaching will extend to providing services to control alcohol consumption, avoid illegal drugs, and prevent relapsing of criminal activities for those who have prior entanglement with the criminal justice system.


Advance Memphis – Memphis, Tennessee.

Advance Memphis works alongside vulnerable adults to break cycles of poverty through knowledge, resources, and skills.3“Misson and Vision,” Advance Memphis, accessed December 5, 2021, The Work Life program partners unemployed clients with volunteer mentors to identify barriers to employment and set professional and educational goals. The program provides job readiness basics such as integrity in the workplace, effective communication, resume building, and interview skills.4“Work Readiness,” Advance Memphis, accessed December 5, 2021,

Padua – Fort Worth, Texas.

In 2015, Catholic Charities of Fort Worth, Texas, launched an innovative pilot program called Padua. Born out of frustration with ineffective government anti-poverty programs that trap families in cycles of poverty and waste taxpayer dollars, Padua is designed to be relationship-based and client-led.5“Padua,” Research and Evaluation, Catholic Charities Fort Worth, accessed December 5, 2021, At its core is a holistic system that matches case managers with a small group of beneficiaries. Each beneficiary works with their case manager to design a unique, actionable service plan centered on their individual goals and strengths and coordinated with other community service providers. The Padua model focuses on addressing the root causes of poverty and empowering clients to be the agents of their own success.

Between February 2015 and October 2016, the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities at the University of Notre Dame (LEO) followed a cohort of Padua clients as they worked through the program.6“New Research on Why Padua Works,” Catholic Charities Fort Worth, October 19, 2020, LEO’s randomized control study revealed that clients served by Padua experienced substantially better outcomes compared with a control group that did not participate in the program. The study found that Padua program participants were 25% more likely to secure full-time employment and had earnings that were 18% higher after two years than those in the control group. Those who entered the program without any type of employment were 67% more likely to secure either full-time or part-time employment than individuals in the control group. As a result, Padua participants were less likely to depend on the government safety net following completion of the program.

LEO is continuing its study of Padua to evaluate how different types of strategies help improve workforce and self-sufficiency outcomes. This next iteration of the study is scheduled to be published in 2022. However, initial findings present strong evidence that community-driven case management is vastly superior to government welfare at reducing poverty, promoting sustainable employment, and increasing self-sufficiency.

CareSource Life Services Initiative – Georgia and Ohio.

CareSource is a Case Management Organization (CMO) based in Dayton, Ohio, that contracts with the states of Ohio and Georgia to operate their Medicaid managed care plans.7“About Us,” CareSource, accessed December 5, 2021, In 2015, CareSource created its Life Services program to help the low-income clients it serves to achieve economic and social stability.8Hearings on House Bill 166 Before the Finance Subcommittee on Health and Medicaid, 134th General Assembly, Ohio Legislature (May 14, 2019) (testimony of Karin VanZant, Vice President, Integrated Community Partnerships at CareSource), Participants who opt into Life Services can access the JobConnect program, which matches them with a Life Coach who helps the client develop a plan for achieving self-sufficiency based on their unique strengths and needs. Life Coaches serve as a support system, assist clients with employment and financial planning, and connect them with other community services. Even after clients have obtained employment, Life Coaches continue to work with them for up to 24 months to ensure that they are able to sustain success and, critically, navigate the welfare cliff so that they do not fall back into old patterns of dependency.

Among a group of 2,323 CareSource clients in Ohio who opted into the program and worked with a Life Coach, 1,014 obtained employment. Of these, 83% of those who were employed while working with JobConnect retained that employment at 90 days in the program. While more research will need to be done into the long-term success of CareSource’s Life Services program, the model is an example of a way to effectively marry community-based case management with government safety-net programs. As an employment resource for individuals on Medicaid, CareSource also illustrates that case management services need not be directly related to the type of benefit the client is receiving.

The nation’s current safety-net programs operate on three different levels of government and effectively cut out valuable community-based resources. However, local communities are closest to the vulnerable and can provide beneficiaries with the most effective path to self-sufficiency.

A well-functioning safety-net system must reinforce natural support systems. For cases that merit governmental assistance, it is important that the programs collaborate with, and not work against, the societal support system already in place. In the current fragmented system, caseworkers may only address a subset of a client’s welfare needs. An ideal system evaluates the needs of the entire person and family.

How to implement

To the extent allowed by federal law, pass legislation that establishes a pilot program transferring service delivery responsibilities to local mediating structures like charities and nonprofits. If necessary, obtain waivers from the federal government to outsource case management services.

  • Under a pilot, government oversees contracts and distributes funding to local service delivery entities.
  • Federal waivers may be necessary for some programs—TANF provides states with the most flexibility and may be the simplest route.
  • Contracts with local entities should include outcomes-focused metrics of success and accountability rather than just number of people served. Legislation establishing a pilot program should enumerate the most important metrics to track.
  • The pilot should also require caseworkers to evaluate familial situations and support available in the community to determine the proper level of support.


Project QUEST San Antonio, Texas.

Project QUEST is a sectoral approach that provides comprehensive help for low-income individuals to earn post-secondary credentials and access well-paying jobs. In San Antonio, Project QUEST increased graduate earnings by $5,490, or 20 percent, nine years after program entry.”1David Bass and Erin Davis Valdez, Promising Approaches to Workforce Development in Texas (Texas Public Policy Foundation, 2020), 9,

Year Up Nation-wide.

“Year Up focuses on linking disadvantaged ‘opportunity’ youth with middle-skills jobs in the IT sector… For one Year Up RCT, 2,544 randomly assigned young adults were placed in the treatment group (1,669) and control group (875). ‘Average quarterly earnings were $1,895 higher for the treatment group ($5,454) than for the control group ($3,559)—a 53 percent impact. Impacts diminished but remained large (about 40 percent) over the following year.’”2Bass and Valdez, Promising Approaches, 9.

Padua – Fort Worth, Texas. “The goal of the Padua Program is to increase work participation, self-sufficiency, and savings while decreasing debt and dependence on government transfer programs… The LEO team’s RCT included 427 participants who were enrolled into the study over the course of two years, from spring 2015 through fall 2016, and received services for about 17 months on average. The program increased employment by 25 percent and produced increases in self-reported health relative to a control group.”3Bass and Valdez, Promising Approaches, 9–10.

The evidence is clear: Healthy marriages are the best possible environment for children.1W. Bradford Wilcox et al., Why Marriage MattersThird Edition: Thirty Conclusions from the Social Sciences (New York: Institute for American Values, 2011), Please also see Fred Dews and Isabel Sawhill, “Why Marriage Is the Best Environment for Kids,” Brookings Institution, October 17, 2014, We see it in higher education attainment levels2William H. Jeynes, “A Meta-Analysis: The Relationship Between Father Involvement and Student Academic Achievement,” Urban Education 50, no. 4 (2015): 387–423, and better emotional health.3Eirini Flouri and Ann Buchanan, “The role of father involvement in children’s later mental health,” Journal of Adolescence 26, no. 1 (February 2003): 63-78 Children raised in married households are less likely to experience physical, emotional or sexual abuse.4A.J. Sedlak et al., Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS–4): Report to Congress (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, 2010), We also witness the results when fathers are absent: Boys become more likely to engage in delinquent behavior as teens.5Jamie R. Yoder, Daniel Brisson, and Amy Lopez, “Moving Beyond Fatherhood Involvement: The Association Between Father–Child Relationship Quality and Youth Delinquency Trajectories,” Family Relations 65, no. 3 (July 2016): 462–476,

As marriage rates have plummeted over the past 50 years, more low-income children are raised by single mothers.6Joyce A. Martin et al., “Births: Final Data for 2018,” National Vital Statistics Report 68, no, 13 (June 2019), Mirroring the national trend, over 41.4% of births in the state of Texas were to unmarried women in 2019.7“Percent of Babies Born to Unmarried Mothers by State,” National Center for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last reviewed February 8, 2021, Children living in single parent households are much more susceptible to intergenerational poverty.8George A. Akerlof and Janet L. Yellen, An analysis of out-of-wedlock births in the United States (Brookings Institution, 1996), In 1964, 7% of children were born to single mothers. Now that is nearly 40%. “Unmarried Childbearing,” National Center for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last reviewed March 2, 2021,

We must partner with low-income families so their children are able to follow the success sequence: “at least finish high school, get a full-time job and wait until age 21 to get married and have children.” When people follow the sequence, they are far less susceptible to poverty. Among adults who followed the success sequence, only 2% encountered poverty.9Ron Haskins, “Three Simple Rules Poor Teens Should Follow to Join the Middle Class,” Brookings Institution, March, 13, 2013,

However, healthy family formation is facing both governmental and societal challenges. First, our safety-net system must preserve the natural financial advantage of marriage by eliminating marriage penalties. In an analysis of different combinations of programs, the evidence was clear that the more welfare benefits received, the greater the extent and severity of marriage penalties. The basic package of benefits—refundable tax credits, TANF cash, food assistance, and medical assistance—reduces the financial advantage for marriage and increases the severity of penalties, and for a significant subset of wage combinations, the financial advantages flip to become penalties.10Erik Randolph, Deep Red Valleys (Georgia Center for Opportunity, 2017),

The ultimate solution to eliminate marriage penalties requires federal action to reform benefit determinations, but states can take the lead as they streamline eligibility standards and form individual action plans. 

The institutions of marriage and family are not only suffering from governmental obstacles, but also societal challenges. Civil society organizations must provide support and examples of how to form healthy relationships and emphasize the success sequence. While this is not something that government programs can accomplish, classes and curriculum may be incorporated into case management.

Where marriage isn’t on the table, welfare agencies need to collaborate with programs that work with non-custodial fathers to help them fulfill their parental responsibility. Consistent with TANF rules, noncustodial parents, typically fathers, must have equal responsibility for the children they helped bring into the world.  This requires an effective child support system that reconnects fathers to their children and supports custodial parents, who are usually mothers. Currently in all states but two, the state can garnish child support payments from custodial parents who receive TANF in order to recoup those funds. States should decline to take these funds from families in need and encourage child support payments.

In 2018, child support served 14.7 million children—one in every five.11“FY 2018 Infographic: More Money for Families,” Office of Child Support Enforcement, Administration for Children & Families, July 31, 2019, These child support checks matter—every year they bring one million people above poverty12Office of Child Support Enforcement, The Child Support Program is a Good Investment: Story Behind the Numbers (Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, December 30, 2016), and made up 45% of income in households below the poverty line.13Robert Doar, “Making It Easier to Skip Paying Child Support,” Wall Street Journal, March 9, 2015, By reconnecting fathers, we see children with better well-being, health, and stability.14Office of Child Support Enforcement, “The Child Support Program.”

How to implement

Administrative Agencies

  • The payment determination system must analyze whether the beneficiary would encounter a marriage penalty if they married. “At first, states should maximize funding to recipients using available programs, including TANF, and gradually reduce assistance to provide a ramp into independence. This ramp could last up to a year.”
  • When custodial parents apply for SNAP, Medicaid, or housing safety-net programs, state administrators should request information that would enable them to open a child support file for the non-custodial parent.

State Legislatures

  • In order to better support low-income custodial parents, state policymakers should decline to retain child support payments to offset safety-net payments. States collected and retained $1.3 billion in child support payments in 2015. Colorado and Minnesota do not collect child support payments to offset TANF payments to custodial parents.
  • Use existing TANF resources to educate recipients on the success sequence through public advertising and by incorporating information into applicable in-person or online training courses.
  • States should invest current TANF funds in fatherhood programs, education and job programs for parents paying child support payments and programs for formerly incarcerated fathers. They should operate these programs on a pay-for-outcomes contract.


Oklahoma Marriage Initiative (OMI) Oklahoma.

This initiative was the longest running, most comprehensive state effort to improve marriages in vulnerable populations. Using a curriculum designed by marriage and relationship experts, the program asked participants to attend 30 to 42 hours of group sessions with individual support as needed. In Oklahoma City, where the highest percentage of participants (45%) completed at least 80% of the 6-10 week curriculum, couples were more likely to stay together after fifteen months.15Robert G. Wood et al. “The Effects of Building Strong Families: A Healthy Marriage and Relationship Skills Education Program for Unmarried Parents,” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 31, no. 2 (spring 2012): 228–52,

National Fatherhood Initiative Georgia Center for Opportunity

The National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI) helps organizations and communities in more than 40 states. NFI began to provide resources for dads, but has expanded to offer items for moms as well. The Georgia Center for Opportunity utilizes an assortment of evidence-based curricula to improve fathers’ self-awareness, parenting skills, and relationship skills.