Louisiana has one of the highest poverty rates out of all the states, but why? That’s a complicated question for which there are several right answers, some of which are more difficult to solve than others. But one contributing factor isn’t so complicated, and it’s something legislators can and should address soon: safety-net program dependance.

Research reveals that safety-net programs often trap people in poverty rather than lift them out, and a high percentage of Pelican State residents depend on these programs. Therefore, to promote long-lasting self-sufficiency, and thereby a more prosperous economy, Louisiana must reform its safety-net programs.

Louisiana had 17,670 safety-net programs users per 100,000 in 2019, making it the second-most safety-net dependent state in the country behind only New Mexico. Meanwhile, 18% of Louisianans rely on SNAP (food stamps) or approximately 1 in 6 residents compared with 1 in 8 individuals participating in SNAP nationally.

While SNAP helps families in the short-term experiencing hardship, the reality is that many participants show that the program doesn’t help them reach long-term independence, but can in fact keep them from it.

SNAP contains work disincentives, which explains why its participants have low employment rates.

Angela Rachidi, senior fellow and Rowe scholar in poverty studies at American Enterprise Institute, recently reported “that the employment-to-population ratio among work-capable SNAP participants without dependents has hovered between 15 and 30 percent over time. A 2018 report by the Council of Economic Advisors analyzed household survey data and found that a slightly higher share of SNAP participants worked while receiving SNAP, but even their analysis suggested that 50 percent or fewer worked” (see Figure 1).

 Figure 1. Percentage of Non-disabled SNAP Recipients Employed by Group, 1996– 2019

Safety-net programs like SNAP are often referred to as “anti-poverty” programs, since that’s the supposed end goal. But when up to a third of work-capable SNAP recipients remain unemployed over time, the path out of poverty for these participants is not readily apparent. Without incentives and supports that encourage employment and self-sufficiency, users are enabled to stay dependent, and therefore, stuck in poverty. This cycle harms the individual, communities, and thereby, Louisiana.

As if the challenges for Louisiana contained within SNAP weren’t bad enough, other safety-net programs compound the problem.

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which provides grants to states to purportedly help people get out of poverty, lacks efficacy. A performance audit in Louisiana found that the state does “not collect sufficient outcome information to determine the overall effectiveness of TANF-funded programs and initiatives. The current performance measures that DCFS uses to monitor and evaluate TANF programs are mostly output and process measures which are not useful in determining whether programs are effective at meeting TANF goals.”

One of TANF’s official goals is to “end the dependance of needy parents on government benefits through work, job preparation, and marriage.” Considering that Louisianans on TANF have the rate for those participating in the labor force in the nation, at just 3.5% in the fiscal year 2020, it hardly seems that TANF is accomplishing its goal.

Work is integral to human dignity and staying out of poverty; addressing the work participation rate will lead to more productive and happy people and, thereby, a better state economy as residents are equipped and eager to contribute to society. This starts with better-managing safety net programs like SNAP and TANF while connecting participants with work.

Louisiana can draw valuable lessons from Utah’s effective implementation of a “no wrong door” strategy for streamlining government programs. In the 1990s, Utah successfully integrated various safety-net programs, such as employment services, vocational rehabilitation, and TANF, resulting in simplified eligibility requirements, a unified application process, and the assignment of dedicated case managers to guide individuals through the system.

Utah improved the quality of services and enhanced administrative efficiencies, and achieved cost savings through this approach. These reforms equipped individuals to get their needed help and become self-sufficient.

Figure 2. Utah’s Federal Funds’ Management Model

Louisiana must strive to empower its work-capable population, enabling them to pursue opportunities for growth and flourishing within the state. With a streamlined and effective system like Utah’s, Louisiana can transition from safety-net programs to employment, reducing poverty and fostering prosperity.

That’s part of the Pelican Institute’s “Comeback Agenda” for Louisiana. The time is now.