Columbus — Two decades ago, Republicans and Democrats in Congress came together to make historic changes to our nation’s welfare program, working to strike the right balance between helping people in need while setting standards for personal responsibility. Twenty years ago, President Bill Clinton signed their bill into law, famously declaring, “Today, we are ending welfare as we know it.”
Many people in both parties will look at this anniversary as a reason to celebrate one of the greatest legislative achievements of the 1990s. But I’m here to tell you that it didn’t work — our welfare system still isn’t doing what it’s supposed to.
I should know. In 1996, as a Republican representative from Ohio and the chairman of the House Budget Committee, I was proud to be part of the bipartisan team that overhauled our federal welfare system. These reforms, for the first time, introduced personal accountability into the welfare equation and began moving America down a better path by imposing lifetime limits on cash benefits, requiring recipients to work or get training and giving flexibility to states in shaping their own welfare programs to meet their particular needs.
But today, it’s clear that our welfare system is still deeply flawed, thanks in part to later changes from Washington. In 2005, Congress pulled power back from the states, reducing local flexibility by enforcing a one-size-fits-all approach that sets arbitrary time limits on education and training for people seeking sustainable employment. As a result, too many lives are thrown away by a rigid and counterproductive system that treats an individual as a number, not as a person who is desperate to gain new skills and opportunities in life.
Today’s system still sees people shuffled from one line to another, where they might encounter multiple caseworkers, all trying to manage a bureaucratic process and not actually making a meaningful difference. Our welfare offices should work with people who need help by asking important questions: “How can we train you for a job that exists in the community? What problems are you having? What is holding you back?”
At the root of the challenge is a fundamental disconnect between our worker-training and welfare systems. For example, caseworkers are pushed to focus on finding jobs for those who are easiest to return back to work and to avoid those who need the most help. Those left behind often end up in “make work” jobs that may count for federal work requirements, but do absolutely nothing to help people get ahead by giving them the skills they need for meaningful employment.
The result is frustration: Caseworkers see little results from their efforts, and much more important, countless welfare recipients who are trying to better themselves and their families are left in a dead end. And the whole country is worse off when a sizable chunk of our potential work force is left idle.
It’s up to each state, as well as to the federal government, to do better. Here’s what we’re doing in Ohio.
Convinced that a job is the best anti-poverty program, we are working around the edges of today’s flawed system. For example, nearly all of our in-demand jobs in Ohio require at least a G.E.D., which, when combined with work requirements, often takes longer to obtain than the inflexible federal time limits. So we’ve become the first state to seek a federal waiver to give our caseworkers more flexibility in structuring recipients’ work and training requirements.
We also are beginning to prioritize low-income young people, 16 to 24, to help get them on the right track early. By providing recipients with a single caseworker who can assess that person in a comprehensive way, we can begin helping them to take on their underlying challenges so they can move up and out of poverty. Eventually, we would like to extend this approach to everyone in the system and put more people on a pathway to self-sufficiency.
States are the laboratories of change, and each state should be given an opportunity to find its own way. We certainly can’t claim to have found all the answers in Ohio, but we are making progress. Each state will have its own challenges; the point is that the states can’t wait for Washington for answers. And while Ohio’s comprehensive approach holds promise at the state level, further progress will be limited until the federal government decides to work with the states to find solutions.
Looking back 20 years to the passage of historic welfare reforms, it’s troubling to see how far we’ve strayed from our original vision, and how often welfare recipients, despite their best efforts, are still stuck in the same ruts of dependency and poverty. Leaders in Washington should commit themselves to working with states to fix this broken system once and for all, so low-income Americans can get the help they need to move into meaningful employment. Improving welfare shouldn’t be something that happens once in a lifetime.
John Kasich is the governor of Ohio. A version of this op-ed previously appeared in The New York Times.