States should follow Illinois’ example

Editorial

Ronald Reagan once said the goal of welfare agencies should be eliminating the need for their own existence. A noble goal, but is it possible? According to Gary MacDougal, it is.

MacDougal used experience gained from running a successful business to help reform the Illinois social services system and move people off welfare rolls and into the workforce. He spoke last week at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

To address the welfare reforms signed into law in 1996 by President Bill Clinton, the governor of Illinois formed a Task Force on Human Services Reform. Chaired by MacDougal, the task force soon realized part of the problem was that services were fractured in such ways that recipients sometimes received overlapping benefits or none at all due to gaps in the system.

Because funding for different programs came from different budgets, individual departments didn’t know what services other than their own were being provided.

Each department simply decided, based on its own criteria, whether an applicant would receive the aid it provided. This meant many aid recipients missed out on some programs that could have helped them on their way to self-sufficiency.

One of the major reforms the task force made was to integrate services. State aid providers began communicating with one another and coordinating their services, providing recipients with a one-stop-shopping experience.

Eliminating duplicate services and filling in where other services had been missing better served the people needing aid and saved the state millions of dollars.

In addition to coordination between government aid providers, reformers also worked on getting the public and private sectors working together. If there were needs a recipient had that the state agencies didn’t or couldn’t provide, those clients were referred to private providers.

This coordination of services met more of the basic needs of the system’s clients, which gave them the financial flexibility to look for work.

According to MacDougal, the No. 1 thing welfare recipients need is jobs. That makes sense; it’s impossible to get off aid if you don’t have income to replace those aid dollars.

His task force found that in many cases, case workers and others with a vested interest in maintaining large welfare rolls discouraged recipients from taking minimum-wage jobs because entry-level wages aren’t enough to support a family. MacDougal disagrees. He says a person earning $7 an hour and working 40 hours a week qualifies for the federal Earned Income Tax Credit. Add in food stamp benefits for a mother and two children — a majority of Illinois welfare recipients fit this profile — and this family is taking in about $40,000 per year.

Although that certainly doesn’t put the family in the same league with Bill Gates’ family, it’s a good start. And good workers usually don’t stay at that pay level for long; as they acquire experience and knowledge, they move up the pay scale.

The final point in MacDougal’s presentation was that service providers must be held accountable for results. He says measurable goals must be set and people held to them; that’s the only way to tell if a program or approach is serving its intended purpose. If it isn’t, changes must be made to address the shortfall.

But that will happen only when the ones holding the purse strings demand accountability.

All this might seem like ivory-tower theorizing, unworkable in the real world. The evidence refutes that idea.

The task force’s reforms work in Illinois. A look at that state’s Temporary Aid to Needy Families statistics shows dwindling numbers of recipients. From a high of 663,334 families on the books in 1996, before task force reforms kicked in, the number of families on TANF dropped to 95,412 in September 2003. By using welfare programs as a safety net to help families achieve independence, nine Illinois counties have no families on welfare.

The federal system we have in the United States was set up, in part, to allow the states to approach problems from many different angles. State governments can look at what works in other places and decide if such programs would work in their jurisdictions.

The Illinois system might be an example for many other states to follow.