House Subcommittee Learns about Strengthening the Safety Net

By Helly Lee

On July 31, 2013, the House Subcommittee on Human Resources held a hearing on improving the safety net. Witnesses described what improvements are needed to the nation’s safety net programs, but more importantly, one witness highlighted what is already being done in their state to better serve families.

Safety-net programs are critical resources for millions of working families across the country who struggle to make ends meet. Programs such as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) can make a significant impact in the lives of low income families. These safety net programs have been shown to lift millions above the poverty line, support working adults to stay in the workforce by supplementing low wages, and promote the success of children in school and later in life. However, many people can be confused by how to enroll in these programs and encounter numerous barriers when navigating these complex and bureaucratic systems.

This is why innovative efforts such as the Work Support Strategies (WSS) initiative, are key to helping policy makers, administrators and other stake holders improve and better serve families to get and keep the supports for which they are eligible. WSS is a multi-state effort in partnership with three national organizations, the Ford Foundation and three other philanthropic partners. WSS seeks to design, test and implement 21st century public benefits systems that would dramatically improve the delivery of work support benefits to low-income families. This involves creating and incorporating more effective, streamlined and integrated approaches to how service is delivered.

In today’s hearing, WSS partner, Michelle Saddler, Secretary of the Illinois Department of Human Services testified on the department’s experiences in being at the forefront of streamlining their programs to provide coordinated access to benefits programs. While other witnesses pressed lawmakers on more flexibility for states’ use of federal funding for safety net programs, Ms. Saddler shared how they have been able to take advantage of the flexibility that states already have to improve their programs and services. In addition, her testimony revealed that too much flexibility for states can be counter-productive when states are forced to make choices that may be detrimental for families such as shifting dollars out of critical programs.

In August 2013, CLASP will become the lead organization for the WSS initiative. Previously, CLASP had provided technical assistance to states to strengthen the administration of child care assistance programs in the context of the broader WSS work on coordinating benefit programs.

After completing the first planning phase of the initiative, participants have already learned much through the successes and set-backs of the WSS states. One of the important lessons is that there are key federal roles in working with states to create more efficient and streamlined systems that will better assist low-income families. This and other lessons have been reported in a new set of commentaries reflecting on the first year of WSS.

Instead of overtly attacking critical safety net programs through cuts and creating more burdensome eligibility processes and requirements as we continue to see in the House, Congress can do more to support innovative approaches that work to help low-income families receive the supports they need.

A recording of the hearing is available on the Human Resources Subcommittee video archives website.