By Logan Pike and Justin Haskins
Everyone knows newly elected Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, has her hands full in Rhode Island. Only three states — California, Georgia, and Mississippi — have higher unemployment rates, and Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New York and South Carolina are the only states that have a higher debt-to-GDP ratio.
These economic problems might be manageable for some states, but Rhode Island was hit especially hard by the 2008 recession. More than 175,000 people remain on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) rolls, a figure that amounts to more than 16 percent of the total population.
Raimondo acknowledged the tough situation many in the state are facing both before and after her gubernatorial campaign, telling The New York Times in December, “I fall into the camp that [believes] income inequality is the biggest problem we face.”
Governor Raimondo may be right, but legislators at the State House have done little over the past seven years to help move Rhode Islanders out of poverty and into self-sufficiency, according to a new study by The Heartland Institute.
The policy study, titled “2015 Welfare Reform Report Card,” provides an in-depth analysis of every state’s welfare reform policies and outcomes and rates each state with letter grades corresponding to scores assigned based on specific measures that have historically been important for moving individuals off of welfare.
Since 1996, when a Republican-led Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, welfare rolls have declined nationally by 73 percent — from 12.4 million to 3.4 million in October 2014.
Although the number of Rhode Island welfare recipients has declined dramatically over that period, poverty and child poverty rates have increased and work participation and unemployment rates have worsened.
One cause behind many of the state’s troubling statistics, say the study’s authors, is Rhode Island’s failure to implement improvements to its welfare system that many other states have already put into place.
For instance, Rhode Island received a grade of “F” in Heartland’s study for its poor service integration policies. In Rhode Island, the management of various government services often linked to preventing poverty and keeping citizens off of welfare remain in separate departments from welfare management. Without service integration, programs are more likely to allow for fraud, and well-intentioned recipients are often left confused about how to gain access to services that could help them escape poverty.
Rhode Island also received an “F” grade for its poor cash diversion policies. Cash diversion programs let case workers give applicants lump-sum cash payments to meet short-term needs if recipients agree not to participate in the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program for some stated period.
Many states across the country, including neighboring Connecticut, successfully use cash diversion to let recipients fix broken cars to get to work or pay for some immediate need without becoming dependent on government services.
The absence of needed reforms led the authors to give Rhode Island an overall welfare reform grade of “F,” ranking the Ocean State tied for sixth-worst state in the nation.
Idaho, Michigan, Nevada, South Dakota, Utah and Wisconsin received “A” grades for enacting proven reform policies that help move recipients off of welfare and into self-sufficiency.
Although Rhode Island scored poorly in numerous reform categories, the study’s authors outline several easy-to-implement improvements the state can make to improve its standing.
Rhode Island should reform its cash diversion program to give struggling citizens the ability to get through difficult financial situations without having to become totally dependent on the state. Its services should be integrated and made more efficient. Strict time limits should be established for recipients.
If Governor Raimondo is serious about improving Rhode Island’s economic climate, she should follow in the footsteps of the vast majority of other states and enact serious welfare reform policies that have been proven to work for millions of Americans.