Utah state Sen. Lincoln Fillmore has a new idea for people who receive welfare: in order to keep getting benefits after 90 days, he wants every recipient to take at least two hours of what he’s calling “self reliance training.”
In the proposed bill, self-reliance training is defined as a counseling session or an educational class that “is designed to help participants learn to become financially stable and less dependent on government assistance” through “skills and knowledge.”
But when asked by UtahPolicy.com to provide more details about what that would entail, Fillmore deferred, saying it would be up to the Department of Workforce Services (DWS), which administers the state’s welfare program, to generate the content.
“I imagine it would vary depending on the needs of the individual,” he said. “Somebody who has good work skills that is temporarily out of work or perhaps has made some poor financial decisions or had some bad financial luck maybe could use some help with budgeting and financial training. Another person may need to get job skills or how to search for jobs.”
His bill says the training would be free and could be offered through the department itself or civic organizations. “The goal of public assistance is to help people, but our ultimate goal ought to be to get people to the point where they can be self-sufficient,” Fillmore said.
But the details of the bill make it clear that if someone didn’t complete the required training, for whatever reason, after 90 days he would be cut off of benefits. Fillmore justified that provision by saying, “That doesn’t stop them from re-applying,” adding, “If the Department of Workforce Services believes the language is too strong, and people would be kicked off, we will change that. Our goal is to help them, not kick them off these programs.”
The bill also notes that the proposed idea might not be allowed under current federal law, given that the money for welfare programs comes from the federal government and there are some requirements states must adhere to, although they often have wide discretion in designing their programs. If not already allowed, the bill would direct DWS to seek a waiver and in the meantime tell applicants about the option of getting self-reliance training.
The bill seems to be premised on the idea that low-income people are poor because they’re bad with money, which would mean that teaching them to be better with money could solve their poverty. But that’s not borne out by data. Generally speaking, the poorest Americans spend larger portions of their budgets on necessities and spend less on eating out, entertainment, and alcohol than others with more stable income. This is also true of people enrolled in public benefits: they spend less overall than people who don’t use benefits and also spend larger shares of their money on basics like food, housing, and transportation.
Utah already throws up extra hurdles for low-income people seeking to enroll in cash assistance. It’s one of the 10 states that screen applicants for drug use and denies benefits to those who fail to take a drug test or who test positive. Yet the state has spent more than $93,000 to administer the program over the last two years only to uncover 47 positive tests out of 137,777 applicants.
These kinds of hurdles are part of why welfare benefits reach just about a quarter of eligible families today, compared to three-quarters in 1996.