Document date: April 03, 2013
Released online: April 03, 2013
Politically diverse state governments can find common ground in a commitment to improving access to work support programs for eligible low-income families, a new Urban Institute report demonstrates.
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WASHINGTON, D.C., April 3, 2013 -- Politically diverse state governments can find common ground in a commitment to improving access to work support programs for eligible low-income families, a new Urban Institute report demonstrates.
Despite tight budgets and different perspectives about the role of Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), and other safety net programs, state agencies participating in the Work Support Strategies (WSS) project, funded largely by the Ford Foundation with three other funders, reported numerous early gains in its debut year.
During the planning period (spring 2011 to spring 2012) devoted to examining their delivery of work supports and piloting ways to modernize services, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, and South Carolina generally took initial steps to
WSS seeks to improve public programs that address a major national challenge: many parents work yet earn too little to make ends meet. When parents cannot pay for necessities or emergencies arise, they risk derailing their stability on the job and their family’s well-being. WSS builds on research underscoring the value to work and child development when families get the full package of help available, including health insurance, nutrition assistance, and child care subsidies.
At the same time, overloaded state staff, outdated computer systems, and inflexible practices pose significant barriers for smooth, effective agency operations and for working families who want to sign up for benefits. Participation in individual programs has grown in recent years, but there has been far less progress in ensuring that families receive and keep the total cluster of benefits.
“Almost all the states shared one overriding reason for their interest: they believed their pre-reform systems weren’t working,” said Olivia Golden, an Institute fellow at the Urban Institute and WSS’s principal investigator. “New approaches promised to reduce burden and administrative costs while improving timeliness and reducing errors. States also thought reforms could lead to more responsive and less bureaucratic government -- valued across party lines -- and to benefits for families, such as healthier children or parents more able to sustain employment.”
The Ford Foundation is WSS’s lead funder, committing more than $20 million. Additional funding has been provided by the Special Fund for Poverty Alleviation of the Open Society Foundations, the Kresge Foundation, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Early Wins for States
States also learned about what it takes to carry out reform. Despite multibillion-dollar programs under their leadership, state agency executives generally faced great barriers to data-informed management at the outset. Making progress required not just better technology to produce better data but also improvements to staff capacity and culture, such as facilitating data-sharing among technical and policy experts, state executives, and managers in county or local offices.
Strong leadership at all levels -- from political appointees to long-time career staff deep in the agencies -- helped move these reform agendas forward. But state team members interviewed for the evaluations also emphasized the role of flexible resources from WSS in supporting basic project management, particularly the ability to keep busy state executives on track. And they felt that technical assistance from national experts and the opportunity to exchange learning with peers are also crucial. The common theme: relatively small investments in staff capacity and support can help leverage major improvements in large public programs.
The Work Support Strategies Initiative
Urban Institute researchers are evaluating each state’s efforts during the planning and implementation periods. State reports documenting the planning year can be found here. Olivia Golden’s “Early Lessons from the Work Support Strategies Initiative: Planning and Piloting Health and Human Services Integration in Nine States” distills and comments on the nine state evaluations.
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