Reforming welfare and workforce policy elevates work

Written by Nic Dunn

March 26, 2024

Originally published in the Washington Examiner.

I’ll never forget what a formerly homeless man in Salt Lake City once told me when I asked him what kinds of government policies would be most helpful to him and others experiencing homelessness: “I just want a hand up, not a handout.”

His earnest desire to work to earn his success rather than simply be given more generous benefits has stayed with me. It is a reminder of a fundamental policy principle: Work is important not just for upward mobility but also for human dignity.

Too often, our federal anti-poverty efforts don’t reflect that. It’s time for a change, and Congress should look to Utah.

Utah’s safety net and workforce development programs work together under a single state entity: the Department of Workforce Services. Early in my career, I managed that agency’s public-facing message through the press.

In the countless media requests I responded to, the message was almost universally the same in each story. The department’s goal was twofold: 1. Help people in poverty stabilize their circumstances through temporary assistance, and 2. simultaneously pursue work or training opportunities that move them toward self-sufficiency.

This was possible because Utah integrated its safety net and workforce development programs in the 1990s. And while its approach was later allowed to continue under federal law, it is unique.

Now Congress can grant that same opportunity to other states by passing a “One Door” state option in the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.

Two members of Utah’s delegation, Rep. Burgess Owens (R) and Sen. Mitt Romney (R), have introduced legislation that would accomplish this as part of the WIOA reauthorization currently being considered in Congress. This change would give states the needed flexibility to integrate safety net programs with workforce development resources, emulating Utah’s successful model.

Utah’s record on opportunity, built on a principled pro-work foundation, is hard to argue with.

Utah is the best state for upward mobility, has consistently low unemployment and poverty rates, and boasts one of the most diverse economies in the nation.

On top of that, the state’s economic recovery from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is arguably the best in the nation. According to a policy brief from the Alliance for Opportunity, Utah has gained two jobs for every one job lost during the pandemic.

While many factors affect these successes, having freedom at the state level to innovate service delivery coupled with an elevation of work are integral components.

The success of the Utah model doesn’t mean the state is perfect; there are certainly still opportunities to improve how we help people get out and stay out of poverty. But there is no sustained path out of poverty that doesn’t include a meaningful connection to work.

In an episode of Sutherland Institute’s Defending Ideas podcast, which I host, the American Enterprise Insitute’s Mason Bishop captured the point well.

“Work is important, and work ethic is important,” Mason told me. “And I think we’ve lost some of that with some of the public policy debates we have around these programs.”

Mason helped Utah create its integrated system in the 1990s, and his research on this model offers a resource for other states looking to Utah’s example.

To that end, a coalition letter from the Alliance for Opportunity urging Congress to pass a “One Door” state option carries the support of 41 signatories, including Sutherland Institute, representing institutions from 17 different states.

Some states, such as Texas, Louisiana, and North Carolina, have already taken various steps to begin preparing for better coordination between programs should the legislation pass.

This approach supports two fundamentally American principles: 1. the virtue of federalism, which recognizes that states are often better suited to respond to the needs of their residents than the federal government, and 2. the value of work as an essential part of true upward mobility and an intrinsic good in our society.

Congress should recognize the value of these principles and the evidence of Utah’s success and pass a One Door option to allow other states to do the same.

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