It's time to overhaul welfare the right way -- here's how

Leaders in Washington have vowed to enact welfare reform this year. In an environment filled with so much toxic discourse, it’s more important than ever that we focus on overhauling welfare the right way: with compassion and common sense.

Unfortunately, neither quality applies to our current welfare system. In fact, our infrastructure can hardly be called a “system” at all. In truth, it’s a collection of inefficient programs and agencies cobbled together over the past several decades, each with conflicting interests, standards and procedures. Predictably, these programs fall woefully short in helping the neediest among us. Instead, they keep men, women and children caught in generational cycles of dependence.

How does the current approach limit people? Imagine a single mom with two kids who receives benefits through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). She works a part-time job and desperately wants to make a better life for herself and her children by getting off public assistance.

But the current structure is stacked against her. If she marries, she loses benefits. If she seeks more hours or a higher paying job, she loses benefits. Beyond this, she has to navigate a convoluted network of agencies and a lot of red tape to get her benefits in the first place.

We believe there is a better approach and it entails stabilizing the safety net for those who truly need it, adopting a “work first” approach for those who are able, and creating incentives to form marriages and households.

There are two principle ways: first, by eliminating so-called “welfare cliffs” that create disincentives for people to earn more money, and second, by erasing the marriage penalty that and encourages single parenthood.

How else can we accomplish these goals? First and foremost, by streamlining the more than 15 major welfare programs hosted by federal, state and local agencies into five coordinated programs, headed by a sole lead agency. We also propose steps to simplify benefit algorithms to avoid cliffs, gradually taper benefits to avoid drop-offs, and eliminate marginal benefit rules that penalize married families.

The end result is a system that helps those who truly need it while encouraging recipients to take steps toward accomplishing what scholars call “the success sequence.” It’s an admittedly wonky phrase, but the success sequence represents a simple concept: Taken together, a good education, a steady job and a healthy family life greatly increase the odds of people achieving economic and social stability.

Scholars on both the left and the right recognize the importance of this sequence. We believe it forms an outstanding philosophical basis for welfare reform done right. We need to understand that each part of the success sequence can work to help individuals; it’s never too late to get life back on track. And while following the success sequence is no guarantee of a positive outcome, it does tilt the likelihood in favor of it.

Here’s the great news: While it appears that Washington will soon attempt to tackle welfare reform, the states do not have to wait on a sluggish Congress for meaningful change to happen. Individual states have a surprising degree of flexibility to begin welfare overhauls on their own. Maine, for example, recently took advantage of this flexibility to create a work-first approach to SNAP benefits. What's more, flexibility that states lack can often by gained through actions by their congressional delegations.

In the past, state lawmakers have followed this type of approach with notable success. In the late 1990s, Wisconsin and several other states enacted their own mini versions of welfare reforms by petitioning for federal waivers. On the federal level, the TANF reforms of the late 1990s followed, which most observers on both the left and the right agree has been successful at helping the poor and transitioning recipients back into the workforce.

Closely tied to this point, we believe that communities (not the state or federal government) should be the principal means of helping our neighbors escape poverty. That’s why we work so hard at the local level to expand job training, provide apprenticeships and enlarge other workforce supporters. Although Washington can do much to improve welfare, the best solutions must come locally.

In the end, we need to return to a view of welfare that is forward-looking: propelling people to accomplish the three-pronged success sequence, rather than allowing them to languish in poverty for generations.