Illinois Offers Blueprint of How Welfare Reform Should Work

Chicago Sun-Times
Copyright The Chicago Sun-Times, Inc.

Illinois has achieved a terrific success in one of the most important tasks government and society can undertake: effectively helping disadvantaged citizens climb that first rung on the ladder of opportunity and moving to self-sufficiency.

Let’s look at the numbers: The U.S. Department of Human Services lists the progress of every state from the inception of federal welfare reform in the summer of 1996 until its most recent report last September. The number of recipients in Illinois declined from 642,644 to 87,545 — a reduction of an amazing 86 percent. This places Illinois second of the 50 states (behind Wyoming) in moving people from dependency toward self-sufficiency, and well ahead of the other big-city states. The national average is a 60 percent reduction, from 12 million recipients to fewer than 5 million, also an important success.

A skeptic may ask: “What has happened to those who have left the Illinois welfare rolls?” Though it is not realistic to track every individual, academic “leaver” studies show that most (other than children) are working, and on average at above the minimum wage. Not every case outcome is positive, of course, but the preponderance of success is overwhelming. We all know that the important step of leaving the welfare rolls for work doesn’t automatically lift a family out of poverty. Much work remains, but this first step is a historic breakthrough — beyond what many of us would have dared hope.

How did this happen? Concurrent with federal welfare reform, Illinois government undertook what then Gov. Jim Edgar called “the biggest reorganization of state government since 1900” as legislation was signed combining all or part of six departments that provided human services into a new Department of Human Services. The new department was assigned the mission of moving people toward self-sufficiency by integrating services, connecting with communities and measuring performance outcomes. Strong managers were put in place and held accountable for results. The department has been a resounding success.

In addition, policies were adopted to make work pay. It sounds obvious, but without child care (which on average would take 85 percent of a minimum-wage paycheck), some continuation of food stamps and some income disregards (not cutting off all welfare immediately when a job is obtained), the incentive would be to push people back to welfare rather than moving ahead at work. As Milton Friedman would say: “If it is more economically attractive to stay at home than to go to work, don’t be surprised if people stay home.” In my experience, most people on welfare want to work and take pride in setting a work example for their children.

All of this is good news for employers. where hiring people from the welfare rolls has turned out to be good business. In Illinois, UPS and United Airlines were early leaders in hiring from the welfare rolls. UPS has hired more than 60,000 people from the welfare rolls. The recently ended economic downturn did not push people back onto welfare as many had feared.

Gov. Blagojevich and his secretary of the Department of Human Services, Carol Adams, deserve praise for their continuing progress in moving Illinoisans from welfare to work. We should all be proud to see our state lead the nation in this crucial effort.

Gary MacDougal was chairman of the Illinois Governor’s Task Force for Human Services Reform and is author of Make A Difference (St. Martin’s Press).