Michael O. Leavitt Center for Politics & Public Service

Project Prologue

Welfare Reform

Welfare Reform

When Governor Leavitt came to office in 1993, Utah was already well on its way to implementing state designed Welfare Reform, and in 1994, Utah started to realize broad reforms.  These reforms, it should be noted, took place long before welfare reform was a national agenda item and was very consistent with Governor Leavitt’s desires to focus on areas where states rights could be asserted. Department staff had joined with stakeholders and community agencies to design what became known as the Single Parent Employment Demonstration (SPED) project, which was implemented in four locations in January 1993.  The project required the State of Utah to request and receive federal approval of 46 different waivers of policies that stood in the way of single parents entering the employment market and successfully working their way off welfare. 

The focus of Utah’s efforts was assisting struggling parents by increasing their family income with employment and child support.  The goal was to make welfare about work and making work pay.  The federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) law prior to 1996 was very prescriptive and left very little flexibility for states.  Governor Leavitt explained, “It had a series of onerous rules that led people to dependence, and that had all kinds of unintended consequences because, unfortunately, the incentives were structured to keep people on the system.”

Utah had been one of the most aggressive and progressive states in the period of 1993-1996 in securing “federal waivers” to operate state run public welfare and had experienced great success.  This success became an early precursor to the creation of the Department of Workforce Services that would integrate and consolidate welfare services and workforce services under the same department.  That model was truly revolutionary.  http://leavitt.li.suu.edu/leavitt/category/workforce-services/

Robin explains, “The way our old system worked, if welfare recipients actually went to work, it was all or nothing.  They lost all their cash benefits as well as medical coverage for their children.  What we put into place was something that said if you go to work we will not simply reduce you a dollar in benefits for a dollar earned.  We were trying to make it a smoother transition between work and welfare by more gradually reducing benefits based on earnings and by assuring those who did go to work that their medical coverage and child care assistance would continue.”  The new system was setup to help people get back on their feet.  Governor Leavitt says, “In 1995 or 96 we had been operating for a year or so, and then Welfare Reform became a national issue.  As a result, Utah was right in the middle of it.  At that time I’d become Chairman of the Republican Governors.  Robin, really lead nationally through the NGA and the RGA, on welfare reform.  I mean Robin was literally at the table when the federal law was written.”

Robin recalls her experiences, “It was pretty amazing to see our finger prints all over the federal law, and it really did mirror what we had been doing…. For the staff, it was validating for them that we were doing the right things and that it was being recognized.”  Although it turned out well, Robin continued, “It was difficult.  I remember some of those final negotiations back in Washington D.C. and how frustrating it was because it had gotten down to the politics stage, the pure politics stage, rather than the right policy stage.  But, we successfully got through it.”  Governor Leavitt added, “It was technically one of the great legislative successes of the Republicans in that era, especially with Bill Clinton in the White House.  You and I were so deeply involved with that, and when I was Secretary, we actually reauthorized it 10 years later.” 

Additional Information

Child welfare info:http://www.hsosr.utah.gov/docs/westernreport2009.pdf

Child Welfare Reform:

http://www.le.state.ut.us/Interim/1997/HTML/0819cwlm.htm

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Michael O. Leavitt Center for Politics and Public Service