Over the past half-decade, as the country has suffered through a deep, persistent economic downturn, America's work support programs have served as an essential backstop for millions of working families struggling to keep a toehold in the labor market. For many families, supports such as child care subsidies, health insurance and unemployment assistance, and food stamps have been the difference between staying together and dissolution.
Yet in dozens of states, lean budgets and antiquated, underresourced work support systems are failing to meet the needs of America's working poor. Problems that were evident in better times have become more intractable, even as caseloads have expanded. How can states improve the health and well-being of low-income families, stabilize their work lives, and make it possible for family breadwinners to get and keep a job if they are unable to get basic work supports to those who are eligible?
Solving such a challenge goes to the heart of what all of us in the philanthropic community do on a daily basis: tackling major problems at a scale that results in real and enduring change in this case, creating opportunity for low-income populations and keeping low-income workers in the workforce.
That's why the Ford Foundation, along with the Annie E. Casey, Kresge, and Open Society foundations, is proud to support the Work Supports Strategies (WSS) initiative, a multiyear demonstration project directed by the Urban Institute, with technical assistance from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. WSS is partnering with nine states led by governors from across the political spectrum to design, test, and implement easy-to-navigate quick-to-deliver operating changes to public work support systems that keep employees in the work force and families together. Many of these changes have the further benefit of reducing the cost of running the programs.
More than a year after we launched the initiative, the progress in fixing what was described in one state as a "completely dysfunctional, broken system" has been greater than any of us could have imagined. In some cases, the changes spurred by WSS had an impact on pilot offices or counties; in others, statewide changes affected tens of thousands of families. For example, in Colorado, state and county staff trimmed their work support application from twenty-six pages to eight; in Rhode Island, the Providence office implemented same-day service to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) applicants, enabling clients to obtain work support after just one visit; and in South Carolina, the Express Lane Redetermination program preserved health coverage for tens of thousands of children and is projected to save the state $1 million a year in operating costs by using data in families' SNAP records to certify eligibility.
Taking advantage of new technologies, streamlined bureaucracies, and operating processes borrowed from the private sector, many states are strengthening the customer experience and reducing the burdens on state workers. Beyond our nine partners, these efforts are already serving as models for other states.
For those of us in the philanthropic community, the work of WSS offers three important lessons for future partnerships between foundations and state governments.
First, as any philanthropic funder will tell you, the idea of working directly with the public sector often meets with resistance. Foundations fear being placed in the middle of ideological disputes or paying for services that are the government's responsibility to deliver. But such trepidation, though hardly unjustified, shouldn't be an excuse for inaction; the opportunities are too great.After all, where else can funders meet their goals of supporting initiatives that scale, create impact, and are sustainable? Federal and state governments remain the largest source of resources targeted at the issues that drive our work. As the progress of the initiative so far demonstrates, when a project has clear goals and strategies, funders can successfully partner with public agencies.
Second, one of the by-products of the budget crisis has been the elimination of state resources for and attention to "research and development." Despite the fact that many agencies running work support programs have budgets of hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars at their disposal, the flexible funding to promote ongoing innovation, modernize operating processes, and use data to improve operational effectiveness has all but vanished. While it shouldn't be a surprise that state leaders increasingly are compelled to devote dwindling resources to direct benefits rather than innovation, the result often is greater inefficiency and poorer distribution of services. By providing the kind of technical assistance and peer learning that leaders and staff of public systems need as they embark on the task of modernizing large bureaucracies, that's exactly where foundations can be most helpful. Quite simply, without foundation engagement these work support systems would continue to underserve their recipients and burden taxpayers with unnecessary operating costs.
Finally, tough budget times are a reason to engage, not disengage. With work support offices stretched thin and the current squeeze on state budgets, one might imagine that helping those in need rather than making investments in improving the efficiency of state government would take priority. But if you look at the early response from twenty-seven states to the initial request for proposals and the dedicated work of the nine states chosen to participate in the first year of the WSS project, the desire for ideas and resources to modernize the safety net in both red states and blue is overwhelming. With states aspiring to do better, this is a great opportunity for foundations to step in and ensure that this current crisis becomes an opportunity to make lasting changes in how we deliver work support benefits across the country.
Philanthropy has a proud history of convening disparate groups and seeking common ground based on practical solutions. The result has been an impressive mix of programs that make a real difference in the lives of individual Americans and often bring people together. The WSS initiative aspires to that tradition, and we hope the lessons it is yielding inspires even more partnerships for the betterment of the most vulnerable in our society.
(Luis A. Ubiñas is president of the Ford Foundation. This commentary is adapted from a forthcoming Urban Institute report, available online starting June 4, that includes an array of perspectives from leaders about practical lessons emerging from the Work Supports Strategies initiative.)