Since Paul Ryan released his new anti-poverty proposal, much attention has focused on his call for allowing a number of states to experiment with Opportunity Grants, which would consolidate several different federal anti-poverty programs into a single funding stream. Much of the criticism, and praise, for the proposal has centered on one of the Opportunity Grant scenarios described therein, namely one in which caseworkers craft individual responsibility agreements or life plans with beneficiaries. I’ve had positive things to say about this concept of customized life plans, yet it is very important to emphasize that the Ryan proposal does not mandate this case management approach on states experimenting with Opportunity Grants. Rather, there would be a few broad rules: the goal of the state Opportunity Grant effort would have to be helping people with low incomes achieve greater economic self-reliance over time, it would have to require those who are capable of working to either work or engage in work-related activities, and it would have to give a chance to a few different competing service providers, to give recipients some measure of choice. Within these parameters, states would free to pursue a variety of different approaches, provided they test them. The federal government and participating states would have to settle on measures of success, and the state’s performance would be evaluated by some third party.
What are some of the other strategies states might pursue? Perhaps they could devote a substantial chunk of their Opportunity Grant to expanding an existing state earned-income tax credit or creating one. Or they could focus on programs like Georgia Works, which connects job seekers collecting benefits with employers willing to train them as temporary unpaid volunteers, or Texas’s Back to Work Program, which provides employers with a cash payment to defray the cost of training a new employee. There are many possibilities that place little emphasis on case management as such, provided they emphasize work for those capable of doing it. One of the reasons I find case management appealing is that it allows an experienced professional to ascertain the kind of services an individual needs to become work-ready, but it’s entirely possible that some other approach would prove superior.