Helping Low-Income Families by Bringing Programs Together: Lessons from the Work Support Strategies Initiative

Earlier this month, I had the chance to testify in the latest of four Congressional hearings that Chairman Paul Ryan of the House Committee on the Budget has held about the War on Poverty, which marks its 50th anniversary this year.

My testimony highlighted the important achievements of the War on Poverty—a reduction in poverty and improvements in health care and nutrition for millions of children and families—while addressing how much more there is to do. The agenda for the future includes strengthening economic security for low-wage workers, enabling parents to work and care for children, strengthening the safety net for youth and childless adults, improving supports for deeply poor families, and integrating and streamlining the delivery of key safety net programs.

Why does integrating and streamlining benefits matter to families? Most poor children today are in families with working parents. When working parents can’t get health insurance, nutrition assistance, or help paying for child care, they struggle to make ends meet. No matter how good the program, it can’t achieve its goals if barriers prevent access for families. That’s why streamlining and integrating the delivery of key programs is crucial to ensure they reach families and ultimately reduce poverty.

CLASP—along with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Urban Institute—is leading a foundation-supported initiative called Work Support Strategies (WSS), which is intended to support selected states as they reform policies, computer systems, and local office operations to cut through red tape and enable eligible working families to get and keep a core package of benefits, including Medicaid, SNAP (formerly Food Stamps), and child care assistance.  These work support benefits help stabilize families’ lives, so they can do better at work and their children can thrive. The six states participating in WSS are Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and South Carolina.

Research shows that helping low-income working families pay for health insurance, food, and child care helps parents succeed at work and promotes children’s health and wellbeing. But too often, parents either don’t receive the benefits for which they are eligible or must spend hours standing in multiple lines—providing documents over and over and experiencing long delays—or getting repeated busy signals when they place phone calls. That’s a particular problem for parents in low-wage, inflexible jobs, who may miss out on hours of pay or even lose their jobs.

With support from five private philanthropies led by the Ford Foundation, the six WSS states are finding and fixing the gaps families fall through. As WSS’ national director, I’ve had a front-row seat as these states take on outdated computer systems, bureaucratic duplication, overburdened local offices, and unnecessarily complex policies to move their work support programs into the 21st century.  Supported by technical assistance from top national experts and innovation grants from WSS, the six states are integrating and streamlining service delivery, fixing glitches, and tearing down obstacles.

When South Carolina automatically enrolled 80,000 children in health insurance based on information already on file for their SNAP cases, it was making policy work for busy families. It was also helping the state meet one of its biggest goals: improved health for South Carolinians. Health and Human Services Director Tony Keck believes that ensuring eligible low-income families receive the whole package of benefits, including nutrition, is “a powerful way for states to improve overall health.”

Those who have been following discussions about the War on Poverty’s successes may have trouble believing that helping families access Medicaid and SNAP is a goal for public officials in states led by both Republicans and Democrats. But it’s true. All six states believe that delivering on government’s promise to eligible families will help parents work more steadily and move up on the job. Idaho Governor C.L. (Butch) Otter points out in an essay that Idahoans believe in work and think government shouldn’t get in families’ way on the job. Everyone benefits when Idaho uses cutting-edge technology to prevent missing paperwork from cutting off families from the help they still need and for which they are still eligible. Idaho has also streamlined its unnecessarily complicated rules for child care help—so families, children, child care providers, and the state all benefit from keeping child care stable when a parent’s hours or schedule shifts.   

All six states also see a bipartisan appeal to reducing red tape. Bad customer service isn’t popular with anyone—Republican or Democrat. The same steps that trim duplication and untangle bureaucracy for families also improve efficiency. In Illinois, Secretary of Human Services Michelle Saddler says the first year of WSS helped the state eliminate millions of pieces of paper through automation, improve local office conditions, and reduce stress on caseworkers.  

The WSS states counter several myths from the polarized national debate. Contradicting the view of government as inert and stuck in its ways, six very different states are changing their biggest programs in fundamental ways. Countering an earlier theory that the Affordable Care Act would be implemented grudgingly or not at all in most states, all six—including those that have not expanded Medicaid—have been seizing the ACA’s opportunities to improve their technology and streamline service delivery. And all six states believe low-wage workers trying to raise families can benefit from health and nutrition assistance and value the stability these supports can provide. Spreading this insight to more national policymakers and experts will speed progress on the goal to make working families thrive—something that benefits all of us.