Adult Basic Skills and the Safety Net

Adult Basic Skills and the Safety Net

April, 2017



The Open Door Collective (ODC)  is dedicated to reshaping U.S. society to have dramatically less poverty and economic inequality and more civic engagement and participation in all our society has to offer. As professionals working in adult basic skills, workforce development, healthcare, social services and poverty reduction, ODC members believe that adult basic skills and lifelong learning programs can open doors of opportunity for everyone to healthier, more prosperous and satisfying lives.  We believe that helping all adults to acquire and use English language, basic literacy, numeracy, and technology skills will improve economic outcomes, broaden social participation and move us much closer to the kind of society in which we all want to live. This paper is part of a series seeking to “make the case” for better integrating adult basic skills programs into a larger agenda of reducing poverty and income inequality.  This paper focuses on better integration of adult basic skills and safety net programs.

Adult Basic Skills Programs
State and federally funded adult basic skills programs in the U.S. make up a large part of the adult education system along with locally funded community-based programs. The system’s focus is improving basic skills for adults age sixteen and older who have not completed high school or have limited English Language Skills. Each year, about 1.8 million adults participate in programs funded by federal and state government under Title II, Adult and Family Literacy, of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA).

Links between Safety Net Programs and Reduction of Poverty and Income Inequality
Safety net programs include cash assistance (TANF), food stamps (SNAP), subsidized rent (Section 8 housing), childcare and transportation support, and other services that provide direct and immediate economic benefits to individuals and families living in poverty.  Supplemental Census poverty definitions include safety net benefits in addition to regular household income.  These supplemental measures show reduced rates of poverty from those shown using traditional measures, demonstrating the direct impact of safety net programs on reducing poverty. Program staff, administrators and advocates of these programs naturally look at the financial costs of alternative program eligibility requirements and benefit levels in relation to their impact on poverty rates.
There is clear evidence of a strong link between the nation’s core safety net programs and the reduction of poverty.  Safety net programs impact millions of families in major ways that can put them on a pathway out of poverty, including improving nutrition, improving family and children’s health care, and for children specifically, their health, educational outcomes, future work opportunity and income. Interesting to note is one estimate in 2012 by researchers at Columbia University, that shows when poverty is measured taking into account the millions of families receiving safety net benefits, (government tax and transfer policies, including SNAP and the Earned Income Tax Credit), the share of people who are poor decreases almost by half, from 29 percent to 16 percent.

Data released for the same year by the Urban Institute, which corrects for underreporting of key government benefits in the Census survey, reveal an even stronger impactthe safety net reduced the poverty rate from 29.1 percent to 13.8 percent and lifted 48 million people above the poverty line, including 12 million children.
Some Key Safety Net Issues
Since welfare reform two decades ago, there has been increasing interest in moving recipients of cash assistance (once called AFDC, now called TANF) off welfare rolls and into employment.  Despite a shrinking welfare caseload, benefit levels have been falling, and many states have made cash assistance more difficult to obtain, even for families in great need.  As congress considers TANF reauthorization in 2017, advocates are seeking increases in funding and more consistency in state regulations and implementation.  Some leaders in the field believe that a more developmental approach is needed, focused not just on short-term employment (and removal from welfare rolls), but on training, education and support services to help individuals and families stay out of poverty over the long term.  In many cases, programs may need to address asset poverty rather than just income poverty.  To become self-sufficient, individuals and families need to develop goals and realistic plans for reaching them, putting priority on acquiring some financial assets and the skills and means to use them to reach their goals.  For many, this will involve broadening existing pre-employment skills and training programs to include developing life planning and management skills, both for unemployed and employed safety net clients. This broader programmatic focus will require policy and implementation changes at both state and federal levels.

The Role of Adult Education in Addressing Key Safety Net Issues
Adult basic skills and poverty are closely intertwined. One study reported that 43% of U.S. adults with low literacy skills live in poverty. In the U.S., basic skill levels are strongly associated with the incidence of poverty among individuals who lack high school diplomas or equivalency certificates: the lower their skill level, the more likely individuals are to live in poverty and to receive public assistance and other safety net benefits such as food stamps and rent subsidies. Longitudinal research indicates that participation in adult basic skills programs has substantial long-term impact on adults’ earnings and education, increasing their annual earnings by about $10,000/year. 

Although many staff and advocates of safety net programs understand that low levels of basic skills are part of the poverty cycle their clients face, relatively few see adult basic skills programs as a strategy to lead them out of poverty.  In both TANF (cash assistance) and SNAP (food stamp) programs, clients are generally able to participate in basic skills programs only insofar as the programs directly connect with employment and training activities.  Important as this pre-employment focus may be, it leaves behind millions of individuals living in poverty who are among the working poor, not in stable family or housing situations, or out of the workforce for a variety of reasons. Many of these individuals need improved basic skills to help them move out of poverty.  They are best helped by basic skills training that is relevant to their life contexts – such as financial literacy training for the millions of the working poor. The fact that impoverished populations such as the working poor continue to increase in size, even as the U.S. economy recovers, points to the need for new policies and programs.

There are thus two broad ways for adult basic skills programs to help safety net clients move and stay out of poverty:
Align existing adult basic skills programs with safety net programs.  Some states have begun to look at the connection between adult education activities and safety net programs.  In Minnesota, for example, people with low educational attainment are significantly disproportionately represented in Minnesota’s TANF program called the Minnesota Family Investment Program.  An exemplary model of intentional alignment between TANF and adult education is the Anoka County Jobs Training Center in Anoka, Minnesota. Their programming has been awarded a Best Practice recognition because it aligned career pathway opportunities in high demand industries for TANF recipients.  Clients of other safety net training providers such as SNAP E&T, HUD E&T, Community Action Program, Refugee Employment Services – could similarly benefit from aligned services that build their educational and job readiness skills.
Embed new types of basic skills programs into life contexts other than pre-employment. In Massachusetts, the Economic Mobility Pathways offers social services to low-income clients that includes developing executive functioning skills, the decision-making and information-processing skills needed to set individual and family goals and implement realistic plans to reach them.  Research suggests that individuals growing up in chronic poverty must deal with putting food on the table today and have few realistic opportunities to learn how to set longer-term goals and develop realistic plans for reaching them. Pilot programs are offering executive functioning skill training to clients also giving the resources/opportunities to meaningfully develop and apply them.

Why Safety Net Advocates and Service Providing Organizations Should Advocate for Adult Basic Skills Programs
The research evidence indicates overwhelmingly that the safety net supports work, particularly for low-income parents, helping them to stabilize their lives, raise their children, and move up while they are working often long hours for low wages. One of the major success stories of the past decades is that the safety net has made work pay and lifted millions of families out of poverty. Yet, historical declines in federal and state safety net benefits over the past two decades and wide differences between states in eligibility criteria and benefit levels are major issues of concern, both as they affect current practice and how they will be addressed in future legislation with a reauthorization of TANF.

While SNAP E&T has played an important role in keeping families above poverty levels, many of its recipients lack the educational attainment level that more and more jobs require. Soon, some education beyond high school will be necessary for a clear majority of jobs.  As states begin to operate programs under their new Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act unified plans – of which adult education is a core partner and TANF is a required local partner – there’s a real opportunity for adult education and safety net practitioners to better understand and value one another, and leverage each other’s work to have greater impact on reducing poverty.

This paper was written by Michele Erikson of Wisconsin Literacy, Inc., Judy Mortrude of the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), and Stephen Reder of Portland State University.