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  • To some aid recipients, Paul Ryan's idea of assigning a caseworker to coordinate all their benefits is appealing. Tweet This
  • Paul Ryan's new anti-poverty plan has its flaws, but the basic model is promising. Tweet This

When I read through the recently released discussion draft of Paul Ryan’s anti-poverty plan, what stood out to me most was the vision of the public and private sectors working together to deliver a more “personalized, customized form of aid” through case management, whether through a government agency or chosen from a list of certified providers.

Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute last Thursday, Ryan explained, “Today federal aid is fragmented and formulaic. Washington looks at each person’s needs in isolation, like food, housing, energy. It doesn’t see how their needs interact. And what’s worse, Washington looks at each person in isolation. It doesn’t see how each person needs to interact.”

Practically speaking, this means that a person has to “go to a bunch of different offices to enroll in a bunch of different programs, each with all their different rules.” With Ryan’s plan, “you could go to one office and you go to work with one person for all of your needs. That person would give you financial assistance and would also act as a personal resource."

“That would make things ten times easier,” Scott, a 26-year-old father in southern Ohio, said when I told him about the case management model outlined in Paul Ryan’s plan. Scott leaned back on the couch, his three-year-old daughter in purple pajamas lying across his lap. He had just gotten off work and was still wearing his red AutoZone shirt and name badge.

Scott and his wife Emma have three young children. Scott never knows how many hours he will get at AutoZone—sometimes they give him 25 hours a week, but here lately it’s been more like 45. The irregular schedule makes it hard to budget and hard to pick up a second part-time job. Emma earned her associate’s degree in criminal justice through the University of Phoenix online, but all it landed her was a cashier job at Target. Emma quit that job last year when she found work as a cook at the county’s Early Learning Center, which her children attend. It pays much better, she says, and she can get benefits. She recently started a retirement plan, and dutifully puts $40 in it each paycheck, which is matched 50 percent by her employer.

Yet even with both of them working, the couple relies on food stamps, Medicaid, the Head Start program and home-based services for their children, and the affordable rent they get through a public Housing Authority in order to make ends meet. And there are plenty of times when ends still don’t meet. Their food stamps typically last half of the month, and there are credit card bills and car payments to pay. Often the credit cards get neglected until the couple gets money from the earned income tax credit at tax time.

Emma thinks that the government should have “some kind of savings program—to teach people to budget and how to plot out savings. Because that’s what we have problems with.”

The government does have a number of such programs. But Emma has never heard about any of them, which illustrates just how “fragmented and formulaic” federal aid can be. It shows, too, why streamlining the process and creating a one-stop-shop for a personalized, customized benefits package and plan to escape poverty makes a lot of sense.

Emma also laments that the incentives are sometimes perverse. “We have to watch how much we make,” she said. It’s frustrating, but otherwise their benefits get cut too much and they end up worse off than before. Emma’s move to a higher-paying job was bittersweet because it meant a significant reduction to their food stamps. It’s like the hypothetical scenario mentioned in Ryan’s plan, in which a single mother gets a raise of more than three dollars per hour and yet effectively keeps only 10 cents of every extra dollar she makes because of higher taxes and lower benefits.

The idea of having one caseworker coordinate all of their benefits is appealing to some aid recipients.

With two jobs and three kids and paperwork to keep up with in order to keep their benefits—“you’ve got to have a file folder and be organized,” Scott says—the idea of having one caseworker coordinate all of their benefits and alert them to other options is appealing. It’s better than talking to a different person every time or dealing with answering machines, Scott says. “Half the time when you call the office, no one answers anyway.”

With one caseworker that you would get to know over time, Scott thought a certain level of trust would develop, an important point given the general distrust of caseworkers among poor women that Judith Levine documents in her book, Ain’t No Trust. It might be easier to build trust if, as Ryan’s plan proposes, people have the option of working with case managers who are already on the ground, the types that see this kind of work as a calling and mission.

As Ryan explained, "In other words, families in need would have a choice. There wouldn't just be a federal agency or a state agency. Instead, they could choose from a list of certified providers. We're talking nonprofits like Catholic Charities, for-profits like America Works, or even community groups that are unique to your neighborhood. These groups would work with people one on one and provide a personalized aid through case management.”

There is something important about this human connection—we all know how frustrating it is to call customer service only to wander through an automated maze. Scott and Emma’s neighbor, a single mom of two, said that that’s what sounded good about Ryan’s plan. “Now when you go to the office to get food stamps no one even talks to you. You just fill out the paperwork and then go home and wait for a phone call.”

She thought that working with a case manager to make an opportunity plan—which would assess her strengths and opportunities to grow, and help her set short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals—could help her towards her goal of getting out of public housing, preferably to a trailer on a big plot of land in the country.

When I showed Scott a sample “opportunity plan,” his eyes got big—he’s generally an expressive guy, full of dramatic gestures—and he exclaimed, “I think that could help us get to where we want. I want a house of our own way out in the boonies.” He flung his arm up in the air and behind his head, as if to show just how far off the boonies were.

Emma looked a little embarrassed and acknowledged that “Scott has plans that aren’t going to happen for a long time.” Scott retorted confidently, “Well, that’s what the plan is for—helping us achieve a long-term goal. I said long-term.” Emma conceded the point and confessed that her dream seemed similarly ambitious: saving up $6000 to attend the police academy.

Even for those in a temporary rather than chronic state of poverty, having an individual case manager could be helpful, especially because temporary poverty is often an unfamiliar crisis. Someone experiencing poverty unexpectedly, for the first time in their lives, does not have a network of people who know how to navigate the system. When I found out I was pregnant last summer while my husband and I were transitioning to self-employment and didn’t have maternity insurance, I didn’t know what to do. Being able to meet with a woman at a local pregnancy center, who was kind and comforting and gave me a packet of resources and led me through a strategy for finding prenatal care, was a godsend.

What’s not so clear about Paul Ryan’s proposals is whether it’s a good idea to make the opportunity plan mandatory, and whether sanctions, like a reduction in benefits, should be imposed for not meeting one’s goals. I worry about the effect this would have on the children of adults who fail to meet their goals, and in some cases, it seems like this would defeat the purpose of the safety net. In addition, there are concerns about the feasibility of this kind of individualized plan given the number of case managers it would require in order to be done right. (Update, 8/4/14: In light of these critiques, Ryan's office has explained that the combination of an opportunity plan and case management is one promising model, but is not mandated across the board. States are free to use whatever methods they prefer—as long as they test the results.)

Still, Ryan’s plan overall is a promising and bold model—and perhaps an improvement on the current one. As another family in Scott and Emma’s neighborhood pointed out, it almost certainly would be better than handing people in poverty more cash.

“There’s already enough problems with food stamps,” one person responded. “People sell their food stamps for drug money. There really should be an ID photo on the card.” By a strange coincidence, as I was sitting on the front porch with this person’s family, the grandmother received a phone call from her granddaughter, asking if she could have ten dollars. She needed to get her food stamp card back. She had sold it to an on-again, off-again boyfriend to get money for heroin, and he said he wouldn’t give it back unless she gave him ten dollars.

Poor and working-class Americans in this town want the government to make sure that those who work hard and play fair are rewarded.

These examples of misuse are the exception, not the norm, but stories of abuse loom large in the imaginations of poor and working-class Americans in Scott and Emma’s Midwestern town. They want the government to enforce the rules, to make sure that those who work hard and play fair are the ones who are rewarded.

“It’s not fair to those of us who are working,” Emma said. “The people on our street who don’t have jobs practically get paid to do nothing.” Emma’s neighbor was surprisingly enthusiastic about the sanctions: “That sounds like a good idea! That way people wouldn’t just keep living on welfare.” Obviously, my wandering through the neighborhood and posing questions to people on their front porches was not a scientific survey, but it did make me wonder if perhaps the working poor are less politically correct about poverty and more open to paternalism than the rest of us.

If there is at least a grain of truth to that, I suspect that it has to do with how demoralizing it is to be working hard, like Scott and Emma are, and to feel like you still aren’t getting any further ahead than your unemployed neighbors. (Which is why the conversation about a just wage is such an important one: work needs to pay.)

The people I spoke to also recognize that poverty is often more than just an absence of money—as when people sell food stamps for drugs, for instance. To address the root problems of that kind of complex scenario, a local, customized approach makes more sense than simply handing out more cash with no strings attached.

Yes, we should seriously discuss how aspects of Ryan’s proposed plan could gravely undermine the safety net, especially for children, and work out ways to avoid those pitfalls. At the same time, the basic model is promising: it would empower the people and institutions closest to poor people—the “little platoons” in civil society—to come work alongside those in poverty. And by putting the welfare system on a more human scale, it would make it easier for struggling Americans to access the help they need.