Empowering People out of Poverty

Feb 17, 2017 Issues: Economy, Jobs, Ways & Means

We live in a country built on opportunity, but too many Americans face roadblocks to moving up the economic ladder. As chairman of the Ways and Means Human Resources Subcommittee, I am pleased to work with Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to improve our country’s anti-poverty programs.

On February 15, I convened my first hearing as chairman, which focused on the Geography of Poverty. We examined how the poverty map is changing around the country and explored the challenges facing our own communities. A better understanding of local issues and solutions creates a foundation for our efforts to help more Americans find employment and experience greater economic opportunity.

When thinking about poverty in America, large cities often come to mind first. However, rates of poverty in rural and remote areas have been higher than in urban areas for decades. Additionally, a larger share of working-age adults live in poverty than ever before, as fewer men and women are employed today than in the past.  

It was a privilege to invite Tammy Slater of Doniphan, CEO of Goodwill Industries of Greater Nebraska, to testify at our hearing. Ms. Slater detailed the challenges Goodwill faces in lifting people out of poverty in rural areas and how the organization achieves success through its social enterprise model, comprehensive services, and community partnerships.

Despite the commitment by so many like Ms. Slater to reducing poverty’s footprint, we know the drug epidemic in America plays a major role in limiting opportunity. This week, I managed debate in the House on using the Congressional Review Act (CRA) to overturn an Obama administration rule which greatly restricts states’ ability to screen unemployment insurance (UI) beneficiaries for drug abuse.  

As part of a bipartisan agreement in early 2012, President Obama signed into law legislation to allow, not require, states to screen and test UI beneficiaries for illegal drugs. The law called for the Department of Labor (DOL) to set the parameters for testing. The legislative intent was for DOL to work with states and industries to determine which jobs would require drug testing, either because it is required by law or because an industry requires screening for new employees.

After nearly five years of delay, DOL finally produced a rule which ignores legislative intent and makes it virtually impossible for states to screen or test anyone because it is limited to beneficiaries who are looking for work solely in jobs with a federal drug testing requirement.

This means even if there is a state-level testing requirement, a state cannot require screening. It also means if someone is looking for work in a career with a federal testing requirement but also applying for jobs without a federal testing requirement, he or she cannot be screened.

We know we need to correct the reverse incentives in our benefits systems. Studies have found drug abuse costs employers $81 billion per year. It should be a priority of any employment program to incentivize those looking for work to stay drug-free. The House passed the CRA resolution to roll back DOL’s misguided rule and ensure states have the ability to motivate jobseekers to get and stay clean.

Independence and productivity must be the goals of any program designed to help Americans escape poverty. I will continue to advance these principles while helping direct Congress’s efforts to empower people through greater opportunity.