House anti-poverty task force releases agenda, calls for increased work requirements, reduced federal role

By Kermit Kaleba, June 07, 2016

Yesterday, the House Republican Task Force on Poverty, Opportunity, and Upward Mobility – one of six cross-committee working groups announced by House Speaker Paul Ryan in February – released a broad set of policy proposals intended to stake out the party’s anti-poverty agenda for the remainder of 2016 and beyond. The new report includes proposals for sweeping changes to safety net programs including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and federal housing programs under the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and also sets forth principles and recommendations for a range of other federal investments, including career and technical education programs under the Carl D. Perkins Act and postsecondary funding under the Higher Education Act.

Overall, the task force report expands on ideas that Speaker Ryan has proposed in past years – most notably in a series of budget proposals released during his time as chair of the House budget committee – arguing that federal anti-poverty efforts are generally ineffective and calling for reduced spending and consolidation of many means-tested programs. The task force adopts a very broad definition of federal “welfare” programs, counting 80 different federal programs across 13 different agencies including Pell Grants, workforce programs under WIOA, and federal tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit, and suggests that combined federal and state expenditures on programs for low-income individuals amounts to approximately $1 trillion per year.

In a section entitled, “Repairing the Nation’s Safety Net to Expand Opportunity,” the task force sets out four key principles that will guide reform efforts and brief policy recommendations that will guide their legislative efforts moving forward:

1) “Expecting work-capable adults to work or prepare for work in exchange for welfare benefits.” The report calls for a range of policy changes intended to tighten existing work requirements for anti-poverty programs and expand work requirements to other programs, including:

  • Requiring states to engage more TANF recipients in work and work-related activities, relative to current work participation rates. 
  • Better connecting child support enforcement programs to workforce development activities 
  • Requiring Unemployment Insurance (UI) beneficiaries to engaged as early as possible with reemployment strategies
  • Reforming Supplemental Security Income (SSI) to reduce cash assistance for recipients – particularly youth – and focusing more on direct access to support services
  • Expanding work requirements for SNAP recipients
  • Requiring housing programs to align with TANF benefits, including authorizing states and local areas to impose work and educational training requirements and time limits beyond which benefits would be discontinued for non-working but work-capable adults 

2) “Getting incentives right so everyone benefits when someone moves from welfare to work” The report suggests that there are often disincentives for individuals and states in transitioning program participants from public assistance into work, and recommends:

  • Increasing local control and flexibility– providing state and local governments with flexibility to “repackage” welfare benefits through demonstration projects to provide a more holistic approach for families they serve. In exchange, states and local areas would be held accountable for outcomes, and each demonstration would include an evaluation component
  • Adjusting federal matching rates in anti-poverty programs to encourage accelerated outcomes, for example by increasing federal matching percentages when individuals begin services, and lowering the federal match over time
  • Creating individual choice in housing programs by increased portability of housing vouchers
  • Consolidating a range of existing programs, particularly food assistance and housing programs

3) “Measuring the results” – generally asserts that most federal programs are not backed by evidence, and that those programs that are evaluated often have limited results. The task force:

  • Notes the existence of the Evidence-Based Policy Commission Act signed into law in March 2016 and suggests this will provide recommendations relating to federal data infrastructure
  • Recommends that social programs could be shifted to a “tiered evidence” funding model, where funding for programs would be divided into three categories: funding for developing and testing new ideas; funding for rigorous evaluation; and funding for expansion of models that prove effective
  • Recommends shifting social programs to pay-for-performance or social impact financing
  • Recommends that all social programs undergo more evaluation, including potentially redirecting existing program funding to support greater evaluation
  • Recommends expanded data sharing across federal agencies – specifically notes the National Directory of New Hires as an example

4) “Focusing support on the people who need it most” – this set of recommendations is largely focused on reducing improper payments, particularly through the Earned Income Tax Credit, Unemployment Insurance, SSI, and SNAP. The task force calls for greater alignment of data across agencies to eliminate error rates, and greater use of data analytics tools to identify fraud.

In the second major section of the report, entitled “Improving Skills and Knowledge of our Workforce,” the report provides recommendations covering a range of different topics, including early childhood development, juvenile justice reform, and banking and pension reforms. Importantly, this section also provides a set of principles for reauthorization of the Perkins Act and the Higher Education Act

Under the heading of Improving Career and Technical Education, the task force notes that Perkins is due for reauthorization, and suggests that House Republicans will prioritize:

  • Empowering state and local leaders by providing substantially greater flexibility in the state and local funding formulas under Title I
  • Reducing current performance reporting requirements
  • Expanding partnerships with local businesses
  • Limiting the federal role in oversight of state and local CTE systems

Under the heading of Strengthening America’s Higher Education System, the task force suggests that the current higher education system is “unaffordable, bureaucratic, and outdated,” and suggests that HEA reauthorization will focus on:

  • Empowering students and families to make informed decisions, including students who are not pursuing the traditional four-year college experience. Suggests that current federal efforts to provide information on colleges should be simplified, and federal agencies should coordinate more effectively to provide information that is useful to students. Also suggests greater emphasis on financial aid counseling
  • Simplifying student aid – generally, calls for consolidating existing federal aid programs so that there is a single federal higher education grant program, loan program, and work study program, and also calls for restoration of year-round Pell to accelerate student degree attainment
  • Promoting innovation through greater access to online learning, expanding opportunities for “contemporary” students to obtain their GED, and creating better pathways to competency-based education
  • Reducing federal reporting requirements while strengthening “accountability” for higher education institutions, refocusing accreditation to look at academic quality and student learning

National Skills Coalition strongly opposes efforts to reduce federal funding for anti-poverty programs and to impose work requirements on public assistance recipients without investments in education, training, and support services to enable individuals to successfully transition into family-supporting jobs and careers. While we believe some of the task force proposals may have merit – particularly around restoring year-round Pell and expanding business-CTE partnerships – overall we believe the task force recommendations will likely do more harm than good for low-skilled workers and other disadvantaged populations. We would urge the task force to focus its efforts instead on expanding access to high-quality education and training programs that would enable low-income individuals to get and keep good jobs and increasing investments in proven strategies, such as sector partnerships and career pathways strategies that can help businesses grow and succeed.