Originally appeared in The Washington Times


We all agree that work is important.

But that’s often not the real conversation we’re having when we talk about most of the nearly 90 federal and state safety-net programs.

When we talk about reforming the safety net in D.C. or at the state level, we normally only focus on work-capable adults without a dependent in one program. That’s a very small subset of recipients. We don’t talk about the families down on their luck who need to get back into the workforce. The need for work goes beyond obvious short-term financial considerations—in fact, work is a key part of human happiness.

Studies have shown if you’re out of work for six months or longer, you will earn on average about 5% less per year for the rest of your life. Long-term unemployment has also been shown to increase the likelihood of depression and other mental health issues. Physically, a 40-year-old worker who experiences long-term unemployment will live on average about 18 months less than their employed peers.

For any of our efforts to alleviate poverty to succeed, we must focus on three key components: making work the heart of our welfare policy reforms, addressing each person’s needs holistically and measuring success based on outcomes.

First, work is the best way out of poverty for work-capable people. Most agree that a 30-year-old man without children should be working. But what about the 58-year-old man who is re-entering society after a lifetime of incarceration? What about the family with school-aged kids that’s down on their luck and can’t make rent?

If we’re not investing in people in different situations in their life to help them find meaningful work, we’re not actually tackling the issue of opportunity and addressing intergenerational poverty head-on. We must promote work in a positive way as an investment and solution—not as a punishment.

Second, when we talk about reforming safety nets so they achieve intended goals or attacking poverty at its source, none of our existing programs are working together to holistically address the non-financial barriers facing our neighbors.

Our programs, particularly at the federal level, are bifurcated and siloed. For instance, food stamps (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) is administered by the Department of Agriculture and overseen by the House’s Agriculture Committee and Senate’s Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. Cash assistance (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or TANF) is administered by the Health and Human Services Department and overseen by the House’s Ways & Means Committee and Senate’s Committee on Finance. Medicaid is administered by a separate HHS agency in a completely different city.

Because these programs are siloed across the federal and state bureaucracies, we’re not using them holistically to help the person in front of us and really address their needs. It means when someone comes into apply for assistance from SNAP or TANF, the government is essentially just handing them a check instead of sitting down with them and working to address the heart of the issues they are facing. 

Nor is anyone requiring reciprocal responsibility that fits that person’s situation.

Finally, we must measure outcomes to know which programs and services are working and, possibly more importantly, which ones aren’t working. That may seem like a no-brainer to you and me. Unfortunately, it’s not so common among government bureaucracies.

When a person needs a job and they are connected to an employment and training program, are they finding and keeping that job that we spent taxpayer resources to help them find? When a person suffers from addiction or mental health issues and they are connected to rehabilitation and mental health services, are they staying clean and remaining stable?

Without long-term tracking of outcomes, we cannot know whether we are treating the person holistically and successfully.

Focusing on the importance of work, putting the whole person at the center of the safety net, and an outcomes-based approach is essential to successfully reforming our poverty-relief programs at both the federal and state levels. I hope you’ll join me—along with my colleagues with the Alliance for Opportunity—in promoting a new safety-net paradigm and opportunity roadmap to provide more opportunities for human flourishing.