Legislator Workshop Call: How to Push, Pass, and Implement Your Welfare Reform Bill

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Recorded on February 19, 2016

Audio Transcript

Tarren Bragdon: Hello. I’m Tarren Bragdon, CEO of Opportunity Solutions Project. OSP is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization bringing together citizens and thought leaders across America to identify proven state-level reforms, and then we promote them to voters, members of the media, as well as state policy makers. We often partner with our sister organization, the Foundation for Government Accountability, to ensure that those new laws are crafted to expand opportunity and freedom for all.

We’re pleased to have you on the call today. We’re joined by Josh Archambault, senior fellow of the Foundation for Government Accountability, and Josh is one of the leading national authorities on state-level welfare reform. When we get to the Q&A part, if you would like to be placed in the question queue please press *6 to be in that queue so that we can take your question. We’ll also be asking some pre-submitted questions that many of you have already sent in through our event registration, and since we know that this is during your busy legislative session and your time is precious, we’ll be ending promptly in 30 minutes, so I want to jump right in and get started.

We’ve gathered together a select group of state legislators on this call. Each of you has either filed and sponsored or cosponsored welfare reform in your state. The goal of this call is to help you make that legislation as effective as possible.

We recognize that states are now facing incredible consequences as a result of Washington DC widening the on-ramps for welfare programs. Even federally funded programs are causing problems in state budgets because they can act as a gateway to other welfare programs and create this spillover effect in increased enrollment. And the consequences aren’t just financial or fiscal. Welfare widening is also trapping a generation in poverty and dependence. For the first time ever Americans think that the next generation might be worse off than their own. So this is a moral crisis wrapped around huge taxpayer liabilities, and one that’s weakening economic growth in your state.

You recognize the problem, and you’ve taken that first visionary step of filing a bill. So now Josh, let’s bring you in. Now that they’ve filed a bill, what needs to happen? Josh, we know that this isn’t a partisan issue as we have members of both parties on the call, but let’s take a moment and step back and discuss why welfare reform matters so much.

Josh Archambault: Well thank you Tarren so much for having me, and really as you mentioned, the next generation we’re looking at could have potentially being worse off than the current one. This really has huge moral implications. This means less hope for a better future for the enrollees on the program, and sadly research – ours and others – has shown that it has really long lasting impacts on the children of those enrollees and the communities that they live in.

Now let me give you just one fact that, as I’ve spent years working on welfare reform, I simply can’t quite comprehend. And it has to do with SNAP, or food stamp enrollment, and just to be very clear, to make a note: when we’re talking about welfare, we’re talking about the biggest programs, not only the TANF program, also the food stamp program, but we also include Medicaid in that. These are means-tested social service programs. But when it comes to food stamps, 60% of enrollees are on the program for 8 years or more. Think about that. 8 years is a very, very long time for somebody to have a lack of hope and being in severe poverty.

But the hopefulness, and why FGA’s involved in this is that the picture’s not completely bleak; in fact just this week FGA released a first of its kind paper on a data project that we worked on with the state of Kansas, and I just want to spend one minute talking a little bit about this story. The project utilized data from employment and wages from the Kansas Department of Labor, and they were able to match information that the Kansas Department of Children and Families had. The program tracked able-bodied adults without dependents as the state reinstated their work requirement for the food stamp program for 2013. Now the project tracked 41,000 enrollees as this policy change happened and the results that, like I said are released this week, are both impressive and actually quite inspiring.

So by contrast, before the reform only 1 out of 5 folks were working on the program. Now for those that were impacted by the work requirement and decided to cycle off the program, within 3 months 60% of them were working, and within a year 2/3 were working and doubled their income, on average. This pulled many of them above the poverty line. Now contrast that to before the work requirement, when nearly 93% of enrollees were in poverty, mostly in severe poverty. Now for those that stayed on the food stamp program after Kansas reinstated their work requirement, work rates tripled and the average time on the program has now been cut in half.

Now while this policy change certainly isn’t a silver bullet, it really is a welfare reform success story, and behind this of course are thousands of stories of individuals, and I just wanted to share one that we were able to pull from the data. We found a young man that was living in the Kansas City area, now he had signed up for food stamps in 2009, when of course the great recession was
really starting to take its toll. But even as we calmly continued to improve in Kansas, his life was in decline. He was languishing on the food stamp program for almost 5 years. Now he reported no earned income and really, he looked at a lifetime of poverty ahead of him. Unfortunately, his story is really all too common in many of our states as people are trapped on these programs, and yet when the work requirement went into place, within 3 months he had worked his way out of poverty, something he had not been able to do for the 5 years previously. Now he’s working in the publishing industry, making $45,000 a year and has quite a bright future.

And again, we have thousands of these stories from a really diverse set of industries in Kansas. So the high level takeaways from Kansas is there was more employment, higher income, and less poverty. That higher income was much more than lost benefits and has provided an economic boost in the area and increased revenue to the state as well. This is just one example that we put into welfare reform that I wanted to highlight.

Tarren Bragdon: So Josh, as we mentioned, all of the policy makers on the call today are running welfare reform legislation and I remember being in the legislature, I was elected into the Maine legislature 20 years ago this year, and what I really wanted to know then is what are the dos and don’ts, so that folks can be successful in advancing that welfare reform and replicate those successful stories from Kansas in their own state.

So let’s start out with the don’ts. What are 3 things that every legislator should avoid after he or she has filed their welfare reform bill?

Josh Archambault: Well, the first of the don’ts in our experience is really don’t get discouraged.
Early and often you get pushed back from agencies and other folks, and say you simply can’t do this. In our experience, even in the worst case scenario, let’s say your bill doesn’t pass, often you see some action from the executive branch side afterwards, or it starts a discussion about the reform, so certainly don’t be discouraged. Often the press in many states are not sympathetic to the reforms, but I will tell you this a little bit more later – the public is with you when it comes to welfare reform.

The second one I would say is don’t let this become a partisan issue. In our polling, and FGA has done one of the largest national polls on welfare reform in the recent history, we really found very little difference in support for welfare reform between Republicans, Democrats, and independent voters. They support this. Even a majority of current welfare enrollees support things like work requirements. In the summer we saw a range from the Democratic governor of West Virginia to moderate governors in New Mexico and Massachusetts, some legislators and governors in some red states reinstate the work requirement as we’ve been talking about.

And then finally I would say don’t think you’re alone in this effort. As I mentioned this past summer we saw action in 13 states moving to reinstate work requirements and through our work at FGA there are 22 states that have implemented welfare reforms that are moving 2.7 million individuals from welfare to work. There are hundreds of welfare reform bills that are like yours that have been filed around this country, and quite frankly, we have not seen this level of interaction at the state level since pre 1990s when that culminated in federal welfare reform. So there is a lot of momentum, in fact just this past week I’ve talked to policymakers in 8 different states just to give you a sense of the level of interest in engagement right now.

Tarren Bragdon: Sorry, just to recap. The dont’s, have I got this right, is don’t be discouraged, don’t let this be partisan, and then don’t think you’re alone. And I know for the invitation for this call it was 440 different legislators who have sponsored legislation in almost every state in the country with welfare reforms. So now that you’ve led us through what not to do, let’s turn to the dos. And what are 3 things that every legislator should be sure to do when championing welfare reform in their state.

Josh Archambault: Well I think the first one is really making sure that what you filed and what you’re championing has the biggest impacts on welfare reform. As we talked to policy makers we’ve seen many, many bills that kind of nibble around the edges on welfare reform and we want to make sure that you’re having the biggest impact. And some of them we have already talked about – the work requirements, we want to make sure that we’re having an impact.

Other examples include many states are moving towards restoring their asset test for those that are on food stamps and just to give you a brief example of why this matters, the state of Maine actually just released a report and they found that of the folks that were on their welfare programs, in the last 4 years they’ve won $22,000,000 on their state lottery. This has included 11 individuals who have won $1,000 or more, 10 or more times. And 8 individuals who have won $500,000 or more. Now why this matters is you want to make sure that your welfare programs are for the truly needy, and for these individuals who have the resources you need to be able to close some of those loopholes. So it’s really making an analysis to say does my bill have the biggest impact that it can if we’re going to tackle welfare reform.

The second do is related to that. Consider doing a package or an omnibus. We have found that in many states, that what ends up getting across the finish line is not a standalone bill with one provision. It touches on multiples of these programs. It maybe has some TANF related provisions, it has some SNAP related provisions, it may even have some Medicaid related provisions. Consider looking at a full package.

And then finally I would say make sure you’re looking at multiple vehicles. So while you may have an omnibus bill, consider looking at the budget process. Many of these have state budget implications, as Tarren mentioned, there’s the spillover effect that you need to be aware of even if it’s a federally funded program, that you can capture some state budget savings. Look for filing companion bills and a champion in the other chamber if that’s common in your state looking for other vehicles, so if your bill doesn’t make it out of committee you may be able to tack onto somebody else’s bill as it’s moving through the process.

Tarren Bragdon: Josh it almost sounds like the legislative process is like bingo, and the more cards you play, the better chance you have to win.

Josh Archambault: Yeah, that’s exactly right and certainly for those on the call that have been on legislature for a long time can attest to.

Tarren Bragdon: Remember, if you have a question for Josh just press *6 to get into the question queue. So Josh, let’s really go through the scenario that a lot of legislators will face. You have a bill, it comes down to the wire and you have to defend just 4 provisions say, in your omnibus bill. What should they be?

Josh Archambault: Well, FGA’s research over the last couple of years has really scoured the country looking for best practices and we have 23. But to your point Tarren, when you go through the legislative process you’re probably going to come to a situation where you’re going to make a final decision on what are your biggest impacts. So the ones that our research has really focused on is something that we’ve already touched on – work requirements. Even if your state has a work requirement for able bodied adults without dependents on food stamps, codify that into law. You never know who’s going to be governor or in the agencies making those decisions in the future. We talked a little bit about asset tests – making sure that you are targeting your welfare programs to the most vulnerable or truly needy.

Two others that people might consider is closing a federal enrollment loophole. The drive phrase for it is broad-based categorical eligibility, but in essence it allows the bureaucracy to skirt some of the income and asset tests, letting individuals on who have many more resources, and opens the door for some potential fraud as well. That has a tremendous impact on making sure that folks are really getting the assistance they need on a temporary basis. The final one that I’d highlight is something that we call Stop the Scam. It’s a little bit like a national credit check for your welfare enrollees. Making sure that you are checking on a regular basis that folks are still eligible, and this is a proven solution that is becoming more and more prevalent as we have a number of states looking at it, but it actually comes out of bipartisan reform out of Illinois in 2012 with really some great results as far as protecting resources for the truly needy, making sure that you are getting people off the program that are no longer eligible.

Tarren Bragdon: Josh, one of the questions that we got submitted really deals with the tricky political waters surrounding welfare reform, and the question is, what lessons can we learn from those states that have been successful in getting it done? From a legislator who’s advancing welfare reform in a state that this is the first time that they’re moving in that direction.

Josh Archambault: Yeah, I think in our experience we have 3 bits of advice. The first one is that messaging matters on this. And I will say from our polling and polling done by other individuals is that the public cares about welfare reform because they believe it needs to protect resources for the truly needy. Now of course, saving money is important, reducing fraud is all important, but for the public it really is about a streamlined system that’s protecting those resources for the truly needy.

The second thing to really give thought to, and we’ve seen used with great success is that the messenger matters, and that may not be you. So working with a department person to find a current or former welfare recipient who can speak to the level of fraud, or how a work requirement made a big difference in their life going forward, or somebody who’s had a family member be impacted. We’ve seen in a number of states small business owners who are struggling to fill job openings are really great spokespeople to talking about the economic impact of the current welfare system. And then finally, thinking a little bit outside the box of inviting in individuals who have been impacted by the wasted funds due to fraud. So police officers, teachers, parents, anybody who has not been able to get a pay raise or some sort of funding and been impacted by a loss of state or federal funds that may be able to be a great advocate for saying we need to make sure that these programs are healthy, and that there’s integrity, so that we can invest in other ways moving forward.

So the final thing I would say is slightly related to that – you must connect the reform to everyday people or to the state budget. So even for federally funded programs, you need to connect the dots from A to B not only for your colleagues, but also to other individuals to say this matters because it is directly impacting these people in your district. And being able to draw that line is I think one of the most effective ways to get people into your coalition.

Tarren Bragdon: Josh, we had another question. Certainly we all know, 2016 this is a big election year. Almost every state representative is up for election, a lot of state senators, so really the question deals with the political implication of welfare reform. Is this something you can run on and win, or is this something that’s just kind of done within the halls of the legislature, but doesn’t really become a political issue or something discussed in campaigns? Can you put it in the political context? That’s what the questioner wants to know.

Josh Archambault: Sure, so what our polling has found, and I mentioned this before is there is almost equal support for many of these welfare reforms across the political spectrum – independents, Democrats, Republicans. And many of the reforms that we’ve talked about today poll within the high 80%. One of those few policy areas where there’s really agreement on the need for reform and actually many of those reforms.

I think, really the proof is probably in the pudding. If you look at the last elections to go ahead, many states’ candidates ran on this issue. They ran on it. Governors and legislators ran on these issues. And in fact, many of them cut ads. Their last ads of the campaign on this issue. So it was certainly something they had polled and it was resonating with voters in such a way that they decided to make it their closing argument for either election or reelection. And I think to me, that is enough proof for folks to be able to go out and talk about these issues on a regular basis in town halls or as they’re door knocking or as they’re out talking to newspapers, and they’re gearing up to move politically.

Tarren Bragdon: Josh, we’re going to open it up to questions, and as I mentioned we have a lot of pre-submitted questions; if you want to be put into the question queue you can press *6 and then we’ll recognize you for your question. But I also want to get to some of these pre-submitted questions, and again I’m mindful of people’s time.

So here’s a question that was sent in. I have a pretty big welfare reform bill. I’ve sent it to legislative drafting, only to be told that the feds will never allow the things I’ve put in the bill. How do I move forward?

Josh Archambault: Well the first thing to realize is that if you’re talking about the TANF program, states have a tremendous amount of flexibility, and there is a now long history of states trying many different things. Perhaps where folks aren’t as familiar is in the food stamp program, and there are actually quite a few state options that are allowed by the federal Government that states aren’t even aware of. And what happens is, the legislators and policy makers typically aren’t involved in these conversations. They’re decided deep within agencies or within the bureaucracy, and so making sure you can understand what the possibilities are and we will be more than happy to shed some light on what this flexibility might be and what those state options are. That’s largely what our model bill is polled from, is trying to say these are proven solutions that other states have passed and they’ll make good policy changes that the legislators can push forward this year in their session.

Tarren Bragdon: There’s a questioner in the queue that I’m going to get to … Right before that, I meant to do a quick housekeeping note. We’ll be following up with you with a number of excellent resources from the Foundation for Government Accountability to help you with your welfare reform bill this session including one pagers and model legislations so folks can expand their welfare bills and some of the language to do, the top four things Josh, that you mentioned. Folks can also visit the FGA website at thefga.org, thefga.org and click on ‘Our Solutions’. I do want to get to a questioner in our queue; please, go ahead with your question.

Eric Brakey: Hello. This is Senator Eric Brakey from Maine. I chair the Health and Human Services Committee up here, and it’s my first term. I ran on welfare reform and I talked a lot of welfare reform legislation, but really working on the HHS budget and working on welfare reform it really does seem to me like it’s a lot easier to talk about the TANF program and the food stamp program, and these are much needed reforms, but as far as budgetary impact, they’re drops in the bucket compared to the Medicaid program and so far it seems like the conversation around Medicaid and conservative approach to Medicaid has pretty much been limited to blocking Medicaid’s expansion and that’s all well and good but I really am searching for ideas on how we reform Medicaid. And I know it’s hard because we have so much tied up with the Federal Government’s rules on that, but I just wondered if there are any ideas or strategies that looking at Medicaid reform.

Tarren Bragdon: Josh, what’s your advice for Chairman Brakey?

Josh Archambault: Yeah, Senator, thank-you for your question. I think I have a couple of thoughts here, and I think as we watched across the country as states try to tackle to Medicaid reform, which is a very important initiative, perhaps the first step is to make sure the people who are on the program are truly qualified, and I think the experience of the Stop the Scam initiative that we talked a little bit about helps take the bull by the horns on some of these budgetary issues. In Illinois and a number of these other states they found roughly 10% of their enrollees are no longer eligible. That has massive budget implications, and I would just make one final pitch, and I think you hit on it, that some of these federally funded programs like SNAP and TANF, or the state budget implications aren’t as big as Medicaid, I will say that states are paying 50% of the administrative costs, and that is something that is a little bit toward if you’re dealing with budget issues.

But what Tarren mentioned at the very beginning of the call is really important, is that our research has found that food stamps in particular is the new on ramp onto your other programs, so somebody comes first in for food stamps and they end up getting enrolled into Medicaid. So if you’re not able to get a handle on, and making sure that those programs are really targeted for the truly needy, then your state budget impact for the Medicaid program is going to be much worse. And so that’s why we are talking about some of these reforms, trying to make sure that we get a handle on some of those programs while you’re also simultaneously trying to tackle directly a much bigger multi-year effort to actually reform the active delivery of healthcare on the Medicaid program.

Tarren Bragdon: Josh, I think it may be helpful for you to talk about some of your interactions with staff and members of congress too, because there’s a lot of conversation in 2017 and beyond about giving states more tools in their tool kits to tackle Medicaid costs, so not just dealing with the on ramp as you mentioned, but also what’s some of the work that you’re doing with educating members of Congress about success stories like Kansas, but also about what tools state legislators like the Senator need to have.

Josh Archambault: Yeah, and I think that’s an important discussion. I think there’s a big disconnect that many of you are aware of between where you sit and folks in DC, and one of the things we’ve been talking about with some federal individuals in Congress is trying to have a better understanding of what states need to make reform possible.

So that means things as basic as scoring possible reforms at the federal level on an annual basis. Or letting states take some additional savings, if they’re fighting fraud, upfront to really make it worthwhile for states to tackle these initiatives. Whether it be a grandfathering program so that when you try to change Medicaid you can say that for folks that are on the program, these are the sets of rules, but for new enrollees, we need to change what the status quo is, and that might mean higher co-pays, that might mean a totally different way of coordinating care around the individuals to be able to save money and deliver a much higher quality product.

Those are the sorts of tools that I think federal people are starting to have some light bulb moments around, and saying this is the only way that we’re going to be able to see states take meaningful reforms. Mr. Chairman, you hit it on, that there’s a lot federal chains here around these programs, or ropes, and so we want to make sure we can cut a few of those and allow states a little bit more flexibility to take some steps towards meaningful reform.

Tarren Bragdon: So it’s a combination of dealing with fraud with the tools that you can enact at the state level, and making the other changes to the program, but also understanding that there are conversations happening in Congress about new options in 2017 and beyond that would really give even more control to state legislators and the executive branch folks to control their budgets.

Now, we got a question by e-mail Josh, from one of the many Democrats who are sponsoring legislation, and her question is how do I build a bipartisan alliance on welfare reform with my friends across the aisle?

Josh Archambault: I think what we’ve seen is a proven solution is simply finding common ground around the abuse in current programs or where those areas concern … One example comes to mind, I know that in Georgia there’s a young woman, African- American Democratic member of the house there, who has been working, and really at the forefront with a younger Republican colleague of hers, to try to fight fraud. And that has been the common element that they have coalesced around, and which they’ve built a bipartisan coalition. And I think that took a little while to settle on what sort of reforms they wanted to tackle, but that’s where they ended up and we certainly would highly recommend those conversations happening with your colleagues across the aisle to say where is the common ground, and make these problems sustainable and that they’re available for individuals, the truly needy folks in the future, and how can we tackle that today.

Tarren Bragdon: Well Josh, I appreciate your insights into how legislators can make their welfare reform bills even stronger. I’m mindful of the time, and I want to thank all of you for joining us today for this half hour call on how to take your welfare reform bill and make it even more impactful and replicate some of those successes like we saw in Kansas. People moving from welfare to work and out of poverty. Remember you can visit the FGA website at thefga.org for resources to help you. We’ll also be sending out follow-up e-mails with a lot of different resources and one pagers so that you can be empowered to pull people out of poverty and give them the hope of a better life in your own state. So thank you, we look forward to talking to you again soon, and have a great afternoon.

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