Feather Houstoun, Pennsylvania’s welfare secretary for eight years, cleaned out her desk not long ago. A lot has changed in the delivery of welfare-to-work services since Gov. Ridge appointed her, and Houstoun deserves credit for a number of successful initiatives.
Pennsylvania faced a significant challenge when President Clinton signed the historic welfare reform law in 1996. Most states were preparing to meet its demands because Presidents Bush I and Clinton had encouraged experimentation with key elements of welfare policy.
By 1996, all but seven states had developed experimental programs. Pennsylvania was one of the seven that had continued the old welfare-as-we-knew-it.
Despite its latecomer status, Pennsylvania became one of a handful of states that welfare policy analysts describe as the most progressive and successful. It happened on Houstoun’s watch, and much of it is due to her leadership.
Now, Washington policymakers debating the reauthorization of the 1996 law are threatening to undermine innovative policies Houstoun put in place.
President Bush proposes that states be required to create unpaid work assignments for virtually all welfare recipients, a one-size-fits-all mandate that his team says will be more effective than programs tailored by administrators. But Pennsylvania, like most states, has adopted a very different approach.
In 1998, Gov. Ridge supported a program of paid work experience called transitional jobs, which Houstoun helped create and fund (in partnership with Mayor Rendell and the Pew Charitable Trusts). Pennsylvania now has the nation’s largest publicly financed jobs program and is a model for other places.
And rather than require immediate full-time participation of every welfare recipient, Pennsylvania makes work or training optional for the first two years.
Some experts believe that universal engagement is the way to move people off welfare quickly. But waiting a bit helps sort out those most in need of services to get a job. Those welfare recipients who can find work on their own do so – and the state need spend nothing on helping them.
Most people on welfare leave quickly. The rolls in Pennsylvania dropped 61 percent after 1996, beating the national average. Houstoun credits the reduction to the increasingly short time people spend on welfare. So one result of Pennsylvania policy is to reserve welfare resources for the unemployed who really need them. It also frees funds for work support like child care and transportation for those who do get a job.
Universally recognized as a barrier to work, transportation problems have not received anywhere near the attention of child care from policymakers. Houstoun was one of the first state leaders to see the wisdom of using welfare funds to help those moving from welfare to work with buying a decent car to get there. She also provided some of her department’s resources to draw federal funds for transit to aid low-income workers.
Houstoun led a fight for federal permission to help welfare-to-work families with housing costs, and created easy-to-access online applications for health coverage to low-income working families.
Feather Houstoun describes herself as a conservative. As a former staffer to a Democratic president, it might seem odd for me to say that I wish she would join others in Washington who call themselves by that name.
But federal policymaking could really use someone who says, as Houstoun has: “As Congress looks to raise the bar, it must be very careful not to undermine proven strategies. The work requirements… could easily result in a one-size-fits-all make-work structure… Remember to do no harm.”
Houstoun leaves the Philadelphia Democrats who replaced her in Harrisburg a lot to work with – provided Washington doesn’t get in their way.