As work for welfare battle continues, Wolf admin will put a new spin on old jobs programs

Department of Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller talks about Medicaid. (Courtesy Pa. government)

As legislative Republicans again push to require work for welfare benefits, the Wolf administration is redesigning ineffective job training for the state’s poorest parents.

Gov. Tom Wolf and his administration are strongly opposed to adding work requirements for programs like Medicaid, fearing that older, sicker people could lose their health care. The governor has used his veto power to reject General Assembly-approved work requirements on two occasions.

But under federal law, Wolf’s Human Services department must run a work program for parents who get cash assistance.

The problem? It’s not working.

Needy families, big barriers

Advocates for work requirements scored a major victory in the 1990s, when Congress and President Bill Clinton created a new cash assistance program for the country’s poorest families: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Funding is given to states as a block grant that can be spent not only on cash assistance, work programs, and childcare — the program’s core functions — but on virtually anything that aligns with a broad goal to end “welfare dependence” and promote marriage.  

Pennsylvania, for example, gives $1 million in TANF funds each year to a controversial nonprofit that manages anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers.

Study after study after study has shown that work requirements cause more harm than good. A new paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that ‘90s welfare reform “led to a significant increase in antisocial behaviors” including fighting and stealing in boys.

At the moment, TANF recipients who don’t meet exemption requirements must do some type of work activity 20 or 30 hours per week, depending on their youngest child’s age. In Pennsylvania, the vast majority of people who receive this type of cash assistance — $403 a month, on average — are single moms.

County welfare offices may refer participants into one of three work or education training programs: Employment, Advancement and Retention Network (EARN); Work Ready; or Keystone Education Yields Success (KEYS).

Most are referred to EARN, which places an emphasis on getting people into a job as quickly as possible.

“But that approach really hasn’t seen positive, lasting results,” Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller told the Capital-Star.

By Miller’s own admission, the state’s work programs don’t have a good reputation. The secretary said she’s heard from participants who say they don’t need help to use a computer “and look at jobs that they don’t want and that don’t pay well.”

“What they want is a path to self-sufficiency,” Miller continued.

The poor outcomes bear out in the numbers. Less than half of the 31,000 people referred to EARN in 2017-18 actually enrolled — the rest lost the cash lifeline.

About 5,000 people who enrolled got jobs, according to Miller, and just 1,000 were still in those positions after six months.

It costs roughly $12,000 to place one person in a job that pays on average $12 an hour.

“What that told us is our existing programs like EARN are just not doing as much as they should or could be to really help gain self-sufficiency or maintain employment,” Miller said. “The focus I think for too long has been on job placement and not enough … to address the barriers that people have to remaining employed.”

So last year, the agency reached out to the people who participate in the program for feedback. What they heard: expensive childcare and transportation are keeping these women from long-term success.

The state’s solution? A total revamp of work programs with a new emphasis on individual case management and a partnership with the state Department of Labor & Industry.

A focus on the individual

In the past, agencies like Human Services and Labor & Industry haven’t had much interaction.

But in his February budget address, Wolf vowed greater cooperation between departments on workforce development.

“If the Department of Community and Economic Development knows a company that needs 20 welders and the Department of Labor and Industry has a welding program, we’re going to connect them,” Wolf said. “Those connections within state government are valuable and necessary.”

READ MORE: Five takeaways from Gov. Tom Wolf’s 2019-20 budget

The exact details of the redesign are still being worked out, but Miller said it will focus more on the individual and their needs rather than a one-size-fits-all approach described by current participants. One-on-one attention that’s made the state’s KEYS education program so successful will be replicated across the board. 

In addition to handling unemployment and workers compensation benefits, Labor & Industry runs job training and apprenticeship programs. Part of the redesign will focus on connecting welfare recipients to those opportunities.

Agencies will also reach out directly to employers to give them a better understanding of the uphill battle these parents are facing. A company may want to provide a shuttle for transportation, Miller said, or partner with a childcare provider.

“If you take care of childcare and transportation, you’ve addressed two of the biggest barriers this population faces,” Miller said. “I don’t know that employers necessarily know that.”

More work requirements to come?

The welfare reform of the ‘90s also put restrictions on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps. Adults between the ages of 18 and 49 without children are required to work at least 20 hours a week to get food assistance past three months.

States can request a waiver to this rule in areas with high unemployment or a lack of jobs. Sixty-three of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties are currently exempt from the rule.

Last year, the Trump administration sought to dramatically curtail those waivers as part of the farm bill. That didn’t happen. But a rule change proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture means it still could.

Should that come to pass, the Brookings Institution, a prominent D.C. think-tank, found “a large number of individuals may be sanctioned due to fluctuations in hours worked or short spells of unemployment.”

State lawmakers also want stricter work requirements for food stamps.

Rep. Mike Tobash, R-Schuylkill, has introduced a bill that would essentially prevent Pennsylvania from requesting a waiver by requiring General Assembly approval. A similar bill introduced last session passed the House with bipartisan support, but didn’t get a vote in the Senate.

Medicaid is also a popular target for a work requirement.

Last year, Wolf vetoed a bill that would have required “able-bodied” people between 19 and 64 who receive medical assistance to work at least 20 hours per week or attend 12 job trainings a month.

A study from the University of Pennsylvania commissioned by Miller’s agency showed that just 3 percent of the 2.9 million people on Medicaid wouldn’t be exempt. Those people are older, more likely to have a chronic condition, and are harder to employ, researchers found. 

Proponents of work requirements point to purported successes in Kansas, where cash assistance and food stamp participation dramatically declined after Republicans instituted severe restrictions over the past decade.

The conservative Foundation for Government Accountability claimed the changes doubled the incomes of food stamp recipients, but that study was criticized “by both liberal and conservative economists for cherry-picking data,” according to the Washington Post. Additionally, a study by the University of Kansas found a link between declining cash assistance and rising reports of child abuse and neglect.  

“A work requirement for people is a blunt instrument,” Miller said. “It doesn’t get a person a job. It doesn’t address the social and environmental barriers that put people in a cycle of poverty to begin with.”

Associate Editor Sarah Anne Hughes covers the governor and Pennsylvania's agencies. Before joining the Capital-Star, she was the state capitol reporter for Billy Penn and The Incline, and a 2018 corps member for Report for America. She was previously managing editor of Washington City Paper, editor-in-chief of DCist, and a national blogger for The Washington Post.

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