Casey Cameron: State government embraces its duty to care for the neediest Utahns

Utah does not shift the burden of helping the poor onto the LDS Church.

The state of Utah has always taken seriously the responsibility to care for Utahns in need, and many great community organizations support and supplement these efforts. But contrary to claims in a recent article and subsequent editorial published by The Salt Lake Tribune, Utah does not pass off its welfare responsibilities to community organizations.

Through the state’s nationally recognized TANF program, we work with the whole family to find services that will best help them on their way to financial independence, including education, on-the-job training, work readiness, child care and physical and mental health treatment. For those who find themselves in a financial crisis, we provide not only cash assistance, but our licensed clinical therapists provide short-term clinical services as well.

We also help qualifying low-income families avoid eviction and maintain housing, in addition to helping refugee families with training, housing, education and English as a Second Language training.

Part of the confusion in recent reporting has to do with the benefits application process administered by the Department of Workforce Services. The ProPublica report claims the state rejects 1,300 applications per month but ignores the fact that we receive about 20,000 applications per month for assistance.

Over the last 20 years, Utah has led the nation in consolidating assistance programs to create a “one-stop” experience for customers. People can fill out a single application — either in person or online — to apply for SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), medical assistance, child care assistance and other financial assistance. Many people simply choose to check all the boxes just to see what they might qualify for. That means many are not eligible for TANF cash assistance because they don’t meet income requirements or don’t have children, making up the majority of those rejected applications.

TANF is just one part of a larger set of available public assistance programs in Utah, and many people who are not eligible for TANF cash assistance qualify for other aid. More than 250,000 Utah households receive medical, food, child care or cash assistance.

When a customer is not eligible for a program or chooses not to participate, we try to connect them to other community resources that may be available to them. Some examples are the Utah Food Bank, United Way of Utah, Jewish Family Center, homeless resource centers and many more local community-based resources. Of course, not every person is eligible for government assistance and not every person is the right match for every community resource.

That leads to another gross misrepresentation in the ProPublica reporting and The Tribune editorial: the relationship between the state and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The article asserts the state is avoiding its welfare responsibilities by relying on the church to provide welfare instead. This is simply not true.

There is no agreement or practice to steer people to any religious organization to supplant the state’s services. The ProPublica article itself quotes a former Workforce Services employee stating that he “always gave applicants other nongovernmental options to consider, and there was no coercion to go the religious route,” which the article and editorial then proceed to completely ignore.

Federal rules allow states to utilize the efforts of local community organizations in order to meet the state’s maintenance of effort (MOE) requirements. Meeting MOE requirements allows the state to access all available federal TANF funding. At least 29 states have used this budget strategy. In the case of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints agreement, we only count a small portion of the value of volunteer hours at the Humanitarian Center, not cash. This agreement does not reduce the amount of TANF funding that is spent helping families out of poverty, nor does it impact referrals to community resources in any way.

At the end of the day, the state of Utah is eager to help Utahns in need. That’s our job. But Utahns also understand that local families, neighborhoods and community organizations are equally important in creating a social support network for when an individual or family falls on hard times.

We are lucky to have this feeling of community, volunteerism and support in Utah. Utah is among the best places in the country for upward mobility, has the second lowest poverty rate, and was recently ranked in the top five best states for economic opportunity. It takes more than just one entity in Utah to achieve this type of economic prosperity, and likewise, more than just the government to step in and support those still on their own path to success.

Casey Cameron | Executive Director Utah Department of Workforce Services

Casey Cameron is executive director of the Utah Department of Workforce Services.