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Blog: If Paul Ryan Wants a Discussion on the Safety Net, We’re Ready as Long as He Is Willing to Listen

Jul 25, 2014 | By Sister Marge Clark, BVM

On July 24, Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI), Chair of the House Budget Committee, released a discussion draft entitled "Expanding Opportunity in America." In it, he opened up some exciting opportunities for discussion and working together to improve the situation for our most vulnerable. In his comments, he said "I want to start a conversation. I want to talk about how we can repair the safety net and help families get ahead."

We at NETWORK look forward to this conversation – and hope the Congressman is sincere that this is a discussion draft. And since conversations need to be two-way, here are some first thoughts that I hope Congressman Ryan will listen to.

In talking about the EITC, he has included a Democratic idea of including younger and childless workers. This would be helpful for those who are able to find work. As he was speaking, I kept asking myself, “what jobs?” He talked about how critical it is for people to be working, but seems to miss that there are not enough jobs for the number of people who are searching, and those underemployed. A scan of today’s Washington Post showed fewer than 20 positions that would not demand specialized skills or licensure. Clearly, Congressman Ryan’s emphasis on job training is right on track.

He talked about “repairing” the safety net – which truly needs repair. His plan would meld 11 human needs programs into an “Opportunity Grant” program – to be administered by each state. Coordination across programs of the best benefit to a particular family or individual is an excellent goal, so long as sufficient resources are available. One question about the melding of programs is how this compares with the “One-Stop Shops” that assisted people to become enrolled in any mix of programs from which they would benefit.

An additional question comes to mind. Case workers are overburdened now. Will there be funding to greatly expand the number and preparation of these workers? Is there an expectation that charities and philanthropic offerings will cover this? A young homeless woman in D.C. has waited over six weeks to see her case manager in order to see a doctor about recurrent bronchial pneumonia. She has been to the ER each time it becomes life-threatening. She is unable to get placed with a physician for ongoing and preventive care, because her case manager can’t fit her in.

The “Opportunity Grant” program would be modeled on the welfare reform of 1996, that Paul Ryan terms “a remarkable success.” NETWORK has done research on the TANF program in 2000, 2005 and 2010. The results do not acclaim the program a success as with each study more gaps appeared. As funding became tighter, changes were made to further limit the program.

[An example: I was in teacher education from 1978 through 2003. In the nineties, I regularly monitored a few students in each class for attendance, study and preparation time and quality of work. I was required to sign off on each student, each week, verifying that they were in compliance with the work requirements of TANF. In 2001, students began to drop out of teacher education, as they could no longer use homework and preparation time as a part of their work-related hours. The subsidy to assist with school costs was also eliminated. They had to get additional jobs. With responsibilities of home, children and now another job, many could not remain in school. Their desire for a job that could truly raise them out of poverty was dashed.]

I laud Congressman Ryan on his attention to changes in the criminal justice system. He proposes giving judges greater flexibility in sentencing of nonviolent drug offenders. He also proposes federal prisons expand enrollment in rehabilitative programming to reduce recidivism. Those leaving prison could be helped to move out of poverty, as skills may not have eroded and they might find work more easily.

Congressman Ryan addresses the increasing numbers of jobs for which states require occupational certification, often with local requirements that are more than necessary for the skills. State-based requirements are often not reciprocal. These can be significant in preventing people from moving out of poverty, a particular disadvantage to persons returning after incarceration. For example, a number of prisons teach cosmetology or barbering, however in most states a felony conviction prohibits a person from receiving a license. But, its impact also affects those who move to another state.

[Example: My dental hygienist’ husband was transferred to Florida. Since the licensure is not reciprocal, she will be unable to work for the 4-5 years they will be there.]

I am most anxious to work with Congressman Ryan and his staff to help this program have a tryout in pilot states, where we would be able to assess the greatest strengths, and modify the elements that will need revision. The start of this conversation is important, and I look forward to engaging in it.