This op-ed was originally published by State Affairs and the April 17 edition of Beltway Beat. It can be found here:

While we may boast a vibrant culture and economic assets, Louisiana is below the national average when it comes to economic growth, workforce participation, and people living in poverty. It doesn’t have to be this way, and Governor Jeff Landry took a first step to change this reality with his executive order to establish a safety net and workforce task force aimed at creating a truly people-centric and work-first system.

Now, the federal government has to act, and the U.S. House of Representatives took the first steps toward doing so this week by writing a state waiver into HR 6655, A Stronger Workforce for America Act. This game-changing reform passed overwhelmingly, with only 24 “nay” votes on Tuesday of last week.

Currently, Louisiana’s workforce and safety net programs are not meeting their stated goals to provide needed temporary assistance while also empowering individuals toward self-sufficiency. More than 80 federal safety net programs are spread across many different agencies, and those receiving those programs are usually not connected to the workforce training programs administered across an additional 15 Workforce Development Boards.

Therein lies the disconnect: The programs work in silos instead of connecting people who need a path to work with employers who need employees.

A recent audit from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor report, on average, the Workforce Commission spends $55 million annually on these programs, but serves less than 20 percent of the eligible population. Alarmingly, the audit also found that upon completion of a program, the majority of participants who obtained a job earned less than they did before entering the program.

There is a better way, and one state has demonstrated it for 30 years. Utah integrated all of its safety net and workforce programs into one office, the Department of Workforce Services, which consolidates the governance of all the programs, allows innovation in service delivery, and streamlines the financial management across all programs. The result: Utah has the lowest poverty rate, is consistently in the top five states for economic performance, and has a labor force participation rate of 69.7 percent, compared to Louisiana’s 58.9 percent.

The Pelican Institute is part of a multi-state coalition that is bringing these “One Door to Work” reforms to Louisiana and other states. But our states need Congress to give us the same flexibility it gives Utah to innovate. With last week’s U.S. House action, the ball moves to the U.S. Senate. If passed and signed into law, Louisiana is positioned to be one of the first states to take advantage of this waiver and move our citizens out of poverty and into the workforce.

Governor Landry’s initiative to reshape Louisiana’s approach to workforce development and safety net programs holds the promise of transforming lives by not only addressing immediate needs but also paving pathways to prosperity. Let’s seize this opportunity to move Louisiana from the shadows of underachievement and ensure that our state’s vibrant culture and economic assets are fully realized, fostering an environment where every citizen has the opportunity to flourish.