Being a Beacon of Hope for the Poor
BY JUSTIN OWEN
Last year, we changed our mission at Beacon to renew our focus on what matters most to our fellow Tennesseans. Today, everything we do is aimed at empowering Tennesseans to reclaim control of their lives, so that they can freely pursue their version of the American Dream. The government often stands in the way of our ability to flourish, whether it’s being overtaxed, needing an unnecessary license to earn a living, or the government meddling in our healthcare decisions, the list goes on. The worst part is that the very people the government claims to help are the ones most often hit hardest by bad policy. Those in poverty need a hand up, but the unintended consequences of bad government policy have a way of keeping them down.
That’s why Beacon has made it our top priority to focus on anti-poverty reforms over the next year. Our poverty-to-prosperity initiative will be to eliminate the barriers that make it harder for the most impoverished Tennesseans to thrive. We will start by emphasizing education, criminal justice, and occupational licensing reforms.
A Consortium on Poverty
In addition to our policy priorities, we look forward to working with the state agency in charge of most social welfare programs. Dr. Raquel Hatter, Commissioner of the Department of Human Services (DHS), has invited Beacon to be part of the nation’s first-of-its-kind, two-generation consortium on poverty. Commissioner Hatter, like most Tennesseans, believes that we should provide a safety net for those hitting hard times. But that safety net should resemble a trampoline—aimed at enabling people to bounce back—rather than a spider’s web that traps them in poverty.
DHS doesn’t get much credit for the work it is doing to actually alleviate, rather than perpetuate, poverty. Since 2013, two of the state’s largest welfare programs, SNAP (food stamps) and TANF (cash assistance), have seen declines in participation. During that time, about 20% of SNAP beneficiaries and approximately 40% of TANF recipients have come off the rolls. This is a great start, but the end goal of the consortium is to make sure these individuals don’t re-enter that cycle of poverty.
Thinking Outside the Box
To that end, DHS is thinking outside the box. It’s pretty radical for a government “welfare” agency to invite limited government folks like us to the table to talk about poverty. But Commissioner Hatter and her team are committed to developing new ways to help people in poverty and ensuring they don’t stay there long.
One example of the department’s two-generation approach is through a new childcare program called Smart Steps. In order to be eligible for Smart Steps, a parent must work 30 hours a week or attend college full time, or a combination of the two. This means a single mother of two young kids who may be on various welfare programs for food, housing, and other necessities can go back to school or work to set her family on a path toward self-sufficiency. In the past, she might be better off if she just stayed home and continued to qualify for other welfare services rather than enrolling in school, getting a job, and paying for costly childcare. Now, if that single mom only needs childcare assistance as a safety net instead of enrolling in those other programs, she has that option. Smart Steps provides flexibility instead of a one-size-fits-all approach. It’s a trampoline, not a spider’s web.
This approach will save taxpayers in the long run, but most importantly it will help restore self-sufficiency and the ability to prosper that so many Tennesseans have lost, in large part due to government programs with perverse incentives.
We look forward to working with DHS to build more trampolines. And we look forward to empowering our fellow Tennesseans who are suffering the most.