Empowering Pennsylvanias through work

How do you end generational poverty?

In Pennsylvania, this question isn’t just central to the well-being of tens of thousands of families, it’s also key to restoring Rust Belt communities, reinvigorating our state economy, and restoring fiscal stability to state government.

Unfortunately, today’s human services system isn’t the answer.

Rather than providing Pennsylvanians with the support and tools necessary to unlock their potential and overcome poverty, the system discourages capable people from pursuing the long-term empowerment that work provides.

Amiee Mathews, founder of Building of Hope, a non-profit based in Sharon which helps rebuild the lives of those who’ve fallen on hard times, can tell you firsthand.

She explains how government programs meant to help often end up harming the families she serves, instead.

“Many times, clients stop working or reduce their hours because they are afraid of losing benefits,” Mathews says.

“Benefits that are worth more than the boost in their paycheck.

But when her clients overcome this benefits cliff effect, Mathews sees them thrive.

She points to Kelly, a 38-year-old mother of three who has faced long-term financial struggles.

After working several part-time jobs, Kelly decided to attend Welding School, hoping to put her family on more stable financial footing.

xOnce she graduated, Kelly found a great job in her field.

Mathews says Kelly’s transformation is inspiring: “Having a full-time job to support her family has given her such confidence and the ability to get off government assistance, pay the bills, and enjoy life!

Her teen children have also seen the benefits of working to reach goals and have a better life overall.”

Despite success stories like Kelly’s, Pennsylvania’s support programs–and those who claim to advocate for the poor–frequently devalue work.

For example, last fall Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed House Bill 59, which instructed the Department of Human Services to explore Medicaid reforms including a reasonable job search or work requirement for able-bodied, healthy adults.

So-called “advocates” decried even the exploration of this idea as “unfair” to low-income families.

What’s truly “unfair” is the idea that healthy low-income people are incapable of working to better themselves and their families–especially when the benefits of work, both for those on welfare and the general population, are so clear.

The fact is, other states are finding that prioritizing work in government assistance programs creates better lives for thousands of people.

After Kansas implemented work requirements for food stamps, half of recipients found work after three months, and their incomes rose by 127 percent a year later.

In Maine, incomes rose 114 percent for those leaving the food stamp program following the reform.

If Pennsylvania adopted similar reforms in its food stamp program, the results would be transformative: as many as 100,000 people would rejoin the workforce and wages would grow by $175 to $210 million, according to estimates.

Behind those big numbers are individuals whose lives will be transformed–families that will be on a sustainable pathway out of poverty.

On the flip side, accepting the status quo will relegate these individuals to a system that encourages dependency by discouraging work.

That’s why a group of state House lawmakers recently announced new legislation to address some of flaws in on our human services system.

House Bill 1659, sponsored by Rep. Mike Tobash (R-Schuylkill County), would establish a work-first approach in food stamps by requiring healthy non-senior adults without children to work, volunteer, or attend school 20 hours per week.

As Kelly’s transformation proves, work is an effective way to break the cycle of poverty.

Not only does work increase family incomes–nationwide only 3 percent of full-time workers live in poverty–but it also shows a positive example for the next generation.

When it comes to combating poverty, we should not measure success by the number of people dependent on government programs, but by the number of people finding fulfilling, family-sustaining employment.

We must not let people languish in a broken system because we lack the political will to fix it. Lawmakers and the governor must recognize that promoting work is key to raising incomes and preserving resources for those who need them most.

Elizabeth Stelle is director of policy analysis for the Commonwealth Foundation, a Pennsylvaniafree-market think tank.

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