Innovation Ecosystem

A great story rarely told

In 1996, a group of diverse stakeholders came together to fashion a welfare reform law that was enacted by the R.I. General Assembly, offering a tale that is relevant to today’s political divide

By Richard Asinof
Posted 2/20/17
A collaborative effort by citizens, advocates and legislators led to the enactment of a progressive welfare reform law in 1996, a story that is not well known, but could have relevance to the efforts in 2017 as local legislators grapple with how to respond to the agenda of the Trump administration.
What are the parallels between the economic situation in 1996 and in 2017, where the barriers to gainful employment appear to be similar? Would Rhode Island Monthly be willing to publish an account of what happened as a way of preserving the story of how the welfare reform law was enacted? Is this the kind legal history around legislation that needs to be taught at Roger Williams University law school? How about a documentary by R.I. PBS or R.I. Public Radio?
The Rhode Island Foundation recently released a study about the needs of small businesses in state, recommending that supports be created for that sector. Twenty years earlier, the work to grow the economy also targeted the small business sector.
In an interview with Jane Nugent published by the Providence Business News in 1995, Nugent identified that human services had problems: “We’re fragmented, we have lots of rules, we’re complex, we can be baffling. We’re deficit-oriented; we’re crisis oriented.”
She continued: “It appears to be that the large corporations will not be an area of tremendous growth. What appears to be the key is the development of the small business sector. What small business owners have told us is that they think we have a good idea, but they don’t know how to manage or grow their own assets.”

PROVIDENCE – Here is a remarkable story of how a small group of citizens, advocates, community groups and legislators in Rhode Island banded together 20 years ago to create progressive welfare reform legislation that was enacted into the law in 1996, a law that proved successful until it was effectively dismantled by the first administration of Gov. Donald Carcieri seven years later in 2003.

The effort was undertaken as an antidote – in today’s vocabulary, resistance – to the welfare reform legislation debate at the national level. It brought together a collaboration that spanned a broad political and ideological spectrum unthinkable in today’s partisan world.

It is a tale perhaps with great relevance to today’s political landscape, when local residents are confronting the realities of the new Trump administration in Washington, D.C., and the way in which local legislators have responded by shaping a new “Fair Shot” agenda.

Quantifying the need
The story begins with a study commissioned by United Way of Rhode Island, called “Needs for the Nineties,” in collaboration with the consulting group run by Ira Magaziner, which was published in 1994, examining the human services industry in Rhode Island.

For the first time, the study quantified the actual amount of money being spent on human services through government-funded benefits for Rhode Island residents. Then Gov. Bruce Sundlin was apoplectic when he saw the size of the total dollar amount.

What the report also documented was a disconnect between the critical need for those receiving benefits to earn more money vs. the lack of jobs, calculating the number of disenfranchised members of the Rhode Island workforce to be about 100,000 in 1992.

The functional barriers included: limited or obsolete job skills, lack of transportation, lack of daycare, and a lack of literacy skills. There was also a pariah status for ex-offenders and for those in recovery from substance use. Sound familiar?

The study found, through some 1,900 interviews with the neediest Rhode Islanders, that there was a strong desire to work, but the current system had created tremendous disincentives and barriers to entering the workforce.

Making it work
In response to the findings of the study, a new initiative was developed, called “Making It Work, a three-year public-private partnership between United Way and the R.I. Human Resource Investment Council launched in November of 1994, to help Rhode Islanders overcome barriers and enter the workplace.

The effort was featured in a front-page news story in The Providence Journal, written by reporter Gina Macris, entitled” “Aiming to break welfare cycle,” published on Nov. 28, 1994.

What became clearer as the Making It Work initiative progressed was that the effort needed to have stronger supports written into state law by the R.I. General Assembly.

As a result, a small group assembled in the offices of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council in late 1995 to write such welfare reform legislation, hosted by Gary Sasse, then director of RIPEC.

The group included: Sasse, Nancy Gewirtz and Linda Katz of the Poverty Institute, William J. Allen and Jane Nugent of United Way of Rhode Island, the Rev. Donald Anderson of the R.I. State Council of Churches, and legislators Jeffrey Teitz and M. Teresa Paiva Weed

The story of how a coalition of citizens, working together with legislators, got progressive welfare reform legislation enacted – over the objections of then state human services administrator Christine Ferguson – is under-reported and not well known.

[Allen, in his role as an adjunct instructor at Providence College, had used it as a case study in his courses. Allen currently teaches courses in nonprofit policy and practice and social entrepreneurship at Brown at the Watson Institute, but the story of the how the welfare reform law came to be enacted is not part of his ongoing curriculum there, according to Allen.]

As part of the strategy, the story of the new legislation was “leaked” to Providence Journal reporter Scott MacKay. It became the subject of a front-page story on Martin Luther King Day in 1996. The headline: “Welfare bill aims to boost work, protect cash benefits.” The subhead: “A diverse group of leaders will submit the legislation today, upstaging Governor Almond, who plans to release his own plan on Friday.”

Allen is quoted in the story, saying: “We think it is very appropriate that we are announcing this bill on Martin Luther King’s birthday, because it promotes economic independence and opportunity.”

Left out of the story
In 2013, ConvergenceRI had an opportunity ask Sasse why the story of the welfare reform triumph had been left out of a discussion about innovation and change in the R.I. General Assembly.

As ConvergenceRI reported: “Sasse responded by saying that times had changed since then, the legislative leaders were far more conservative than he was these days. “If I showed up with the [director of the Economic Progress Institute] with such a proposal today, the legislative leaders would throw us out the door,” he said.

When pressed on which legislative leaders would actually throw him out the door, Sasse admitted that it was a bit of an exaggeration.

Sasse asked ConvergenceRI: “Do you know when we released the story?"

He was surprised when ConvergenceRI replied quickly: “Martin Luther King Day, Jan.15, 1996, in a front-page story by then Providence Journal reporter Scott MacKay.”

“That’s right,” Sasse said, surprised.

[As ConvergenceRI explained to Sasse, being fully transparent, he had been in charge of directing the communications for the initiative at the request of Allen and Nugent.]

Sasse then recalled how Ferguson had yelled at him in her office for his role in the creation of the proposed welfare reform law. “She was furious,” Sasse said.


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