The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
April 3, 2013

Politically diverse states share common goals when it comes to retooling work support programs

April 3, 2013

From spring 2011 to spring 2012, the Work Support Strategies (WSS) Initiative helped nine states design and pilot innovative ways of delivering work support programs to low-income working families. With a focus on Medicaid, nutrition assistance, and child care subsidies, states tested new policies, business processes, and technological fixes to reduce bureaucratic burdens and help families get and keep the whole package of work support programs for which they are eligible. Ten reports—one for each state and one cross-cutting paper—describe in detail the states’ accomplishments, challenges, and lessons learned.

But if you’ve been reading the news from Washington, DC, about deep partisan divisions and hostility to safety net programs, the biggest news may be the names of the nine states. How could traditionally Republican states like Idaho and South Carolina, traditionally Democratic states like Illinois and Rhode Island, and battleground states like North Carolina and Colorado share an approach to large public work support programs? Aren’t the Republican and Democratic visions of programs like Medicaid and SNAP incompatible?

wss map-01

As someone who has led state and local agencies, I was pleased—but not surprised—to find out that generalizing about state governments based just on their political history is risky business. For one thing, many of the states participating in WSS wanted to try something new because their old ways of doing business just weren’t working. During the recession and its aftermath, as family need rose and state finances contracted, too few workers were trying to process paper for too many applicants, leading to long delays, low morale, and a barrage of complaints. States found that better customer service—including using technology well and operating more like a business—were appealing across party lines.

States also had a vision for how better services would help families, though the particulars of that vision were not identical. Some emphasized the role of these programs taken together in stabilizing families’ lives at work and helping them move up. Others put children’s health and nutrition front and center, pointing out, for example, that children’s health could improve with regular preventive care if processing mistakes no longer interrupted their eligibility for Medicaid. And where state legislators had already made a strong policy commitment to safety net programs, state officials wanted to see actual service delivery live up to, not contradict, legislative promises.

The evidence from the WSS states doesn’t show that all states share this vision; the nine were chosen through a rigorous national competition. But it does offer many valuable lessons about how skilled leaders in highly diverse states—facing varied political, demographic, and economic contexts—can choose to serve low-income families more effectively and stick with that commitment through partisan battles, tight budgets, and political turnover.

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