New Opportunities for Governors to Advance Opportunity for All: Turning State-of-the-State Visions into Reality in 2015 and Beyond

Both inside and outside Washington’s Beltway, President Obama’s State of the Union address last week garnered lots of attention for its bold proposals to strengthen the middle class. CLASP was pleased to see the president embrace a two-generation approach to helping lift poor and low-income families into the middle class—a strategy we have long advanced. 

But the president is not the only public official who lays out a vision for the future in January. It’s also the month for governors to highlight their visions in the annual state-of-the-state ritual. This year, governors of both parties have set out agendas to achieve economic growth and opportunity for a broad swathe of state residents. 

How to accomplish this goal? Like the president, both Democratic and Republican governors have highlighted the role of education and jobs as an “escalator to opportunity” (Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York), a “stairway to the future” (Governor Nathan Deal of Georgia), and a means to “a future without limits” for children (Governor Susana Martinez of New Mexico). Or, as Governor Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania summarized the core agenda, “my administration will be dedicated to three simple goals: jobs that pay, schools that teach, and government that works.”

As Governor Wolf’s third goal suggests, the rub is turning these ambitious visions into reality. And this is particularly true when a Governor understands the importance of extending opportunity to all state residents—including young people and adults stuck in low-wage jobs, parents trying to raise young children and put food on the table, and communities and individuals that have been left behind, with limited skills and resources.

But there’s good news for those states ready to seize it: making significant strides towards economic opportunity for all should be far more doable in 2015 than at any time in recent years. This is true not only because of an improved job market and not only because revived tax revenues in a number of states make the budget picture stronger than in recent years. It is also true because of new national policy opportunities enacted by Congress, including the Affordable Care Act as well as bipartisan, long-overdue, and very important reauthorizations of the nation’s workforce and child care programs. Yes, that’s right: despite all we hear—and accurately so—about Congressional gridlock, Congress has enacted several important pieces of legislation that give states far stronger tools to help low-income Americans.

So as governors look to turn their ambitious state-of-the-state visions into reality, they have more ways than ever to build a ladder to economic security for all:

  • A major new opportunity stems from the first reauthorization in 16 years of the nation’s core workforce program, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which Congress passed with a near-unanimous vote in 2014. WIOA tears down many of the barriers in previous workforce legislation to serving low-skilled and low-income people by creating incentives and options for states to focus on proven job training strategies that help workers succeed. Among many other opportunities, this reauthorization encourages states to explore “earn while you learn” strategies, through partnerships with employers ranging from on-the-job-training to apprenticeships to subsidized work–so people don’t have to choose between paying the rent or putting food on the table today as they climb the ladder to a better tomorrow.
  • In 2014, Congress also reauthorized—for the first time in 18 years—the Child Care and Development Block Grant, the nation’s core program to help low-income working parents pay for child care and to improve the quality of care for all children. The law includes new requirements for health, safety, and quality as well as improvements that will help low-income parents get and keep care—strengthening the program’s role as a ladder to opportunity for parents and children. For example, parents will now keep their subsidy for a year regardless of ups and downs in their work hours, a big change from today’s system where complicated rules mean that the average parent loses assistance after just a few months. This change has the potential to help parents progress at work and support children’s learning, including making it easier to weave together child care with pre-kindergarten or Head Start programs. However, the law’s promise will not be realized without additional resources, an essential next step both for Congress and states across the country.
  • In 2014, Congress passed the Farm Bill, reauthorizing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps)—a core work support and safety net program that helped meet the nutritional needs of more than 46 million low-income Americans in a typical month in 2014. The reauthorization added new pilot programs for employment and training to help SNAP recipients move up the ladder and, more broadly, highlighted the important role of an under-utilized resource: the federal dollars available for states to provide employment and training services to SNAP recipients. Many states leave this important resource on the table and should be thinking about new ways to align SNAP employment and training services with best practices in their other workforce programs. Moreover, by the end of 2016, as many as 1 million unemployed childless workerswill lose access to SNAP benefits unless they participate in an employment and training program; states should be looking at how to use these funds to connect affected recipients to work and training opportunities.
  • In 2015, more states (and cities) will have a chance to compete for federal grants to support first steps toward paid family and medical leave, which helps workers to have the time they need to address their own serious illness, bond with a new child, or take care of an ill family member.  The U.S. Department of Labor grants will enable governors (and mayors) to conduct feasibility studies for paid leave programs in their jurisdictions. Because lack of paid family and medical leave hits those in low-wage jobs hardest, hindering both job retention and successful parenting, the competition is a great opportunity for states interested in widespread economic success.
  • Finally, as states get further into their implementation of the Affordable Care Act, those that have chosen to expand Medicaid (or will make that choice in 2015) have an unparalleled opportunity to help all their residents move up the ladder to economic security. As Governor Beshear of Kentucky said in his state-of-the-state address, “There is a direct line from poor health to almost every core challenge Kentucky faces–whether that’s poverty, unemployment, low education attainment, substance abuse or crime.” Untreated health and mental health problems are a major obstacle to success at work and school and also hinder parenting, holding back children’s opportunities. The moment is ripe for states to identify and explore new strategies to take advantage of expanded access to behavioral health as well as medical treatment under the ACA.

These key policy opportunities have several things in common. First, they all help struggling individuals and families gain the economic stability they need to keep their lives together and the work experience and skills they need to move up. In other words, the contrast some observers make between safety net programs and opportunity programs doesn’t apply–these programs do both. Second, taken together, these initiatives create a package that helps two generations, parents and children, thus creating a double dose of help for struggling families and a double push towards opportunity. And third, none of these ideas requires waiting for Congress to act. 

That said, Congress has a crucial agenda for action in the coming months–most notably, providing essential resources and lifting the caps on discretionary spending, enforced by the sequester, that have harmed low-income families and constrained state governments. Without those steps, the promise of these legislative improvements will not be achieved. But this is a moment for state action that can make a huge difference as well, a moment for governors and state legislatures to act on their own vision and to seize the opportunities coming out of Washington that can help their residents along the path to economic security that everybody agrees is so critical.