Opinion editorial: Washington’s WorkFirst program empowers families (Rep. Maureen Walsh)

By Rep. Maureen Walsh

I’ve long been a proponent of government policies that are empowering as opposed to enabling.  Allowing people to have a sense of ownership in improving their lot in life, instead of simply providing government assistance to them, is the best way to help them.  Assisting folks on welfare with an educational opportunity to help them to find a job and care for their family without federal or state assistance is a good use of public assistance money.  This legislative session, I have sponsored a bill to improve a statewide program that accomplishes these goals.  But first, some history.

Our nation’s welfare system was reformed by Congress in 1996 through the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. TANF was created as a block grant to the states, rather than ongoing federal payments tied to caseloads.  States have flexibility in designing the eligibility requirements and program delivery.

Washington’s TANF program is called WorkFirst and was established in 1997 by House Bill 3901, a Republican-sponsored bill to implement welfare reform at the state level. In short, WorkFirst provides eligible adults various forms of assistance – internships, higher education, vocational training and job readiness assistance to connect them to the workforce. Under current law, a WorkFirst participant’s vocational education may not exceed 12 months.  However, only 15 percent of WorkFirst participants are successful in earning a degree or a certificate within that one year.

My bill, House Bill 1875, increases that education allowance timeframe to 24 months – without increasing the cost of the program. This bill passed the state House Wednesday 90-6.

WorkFirst’s purpose is to embolden families so they can find work, earn a family wage, provide for their family and no longer be a part of the state’s welfare system. But providing only one year for a WorkFirst participant to earn a degree to connect them to a living wage job is near impossible. Expanding the time limit to 24 months could allow a lot more of our WorkFirst participants the ability to earn a two-year degree, such as an associate degree, a nursing degree, or a certificate in a program that will connect them to family-wage jobs and elevate them out of government assistance.

My goal as your state legislator is to work hard on behalf of children and families.  I’m proud that I have served on the House Early Learning and Human Services Committee since its inception.  The ability to introduce and support legislation that strengthens families across our State is a tremendous honor and the right thing to do.

My bill now moves onto the Senate, where I hope it will be given due consideration.

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Rep. Maureen Walsh, R- Walla Walla, represents the 16th Legislative District and is the ranking member on the House Early Learning and Human Services Committee.