Arizona has faced some of its most challenging times in the past few years. As our state and the nation continue the slow but steady rebound from the most trying economy since the Great Depression, we need to position Arizona for the future.
One way we can strengthen that future is to look at existing problems in new ways, through a different lens. As director of the Arizona Department of Economic Security, I find myself at the forefront in finding a new solution through a bold initiative to reinvent the Arizona safety net.
Why is our safety net in need of reinventing? Simply, the existing design and operation are flawed. The focus of the existing safety net, for the most part, is the effective dispensing of the authorized benefit, good or service of the system.
Generally, as long as the individual or family meets the requisite eligibility criterion to receive the benefit, good or service and there is availability, they will continue to receive it.
In our vision of a safety net, we believe there should be equal emphasis on remediating the need for public help in the life of the consumer.
Although our safety net is a vital part of society, it should be a system that acts more like a trampoline to bounce those in need back into society at a higher functioning level and not a net that snares and holds.
The truth is, the current design of our public safety net does not foster freedom, and many consumers of the system are snared by that poor design, unable to move beyond it.
Therefore, we must reinvent the Arizona safety net to support Arizonans in need - intentionally increasing their capacity and, whenever possible, reducing their dependency on public supports.
This is economic development. Describing the reinvention of the public safety net as economic development may sound strange, but I strongly believe that is exactly what it is.
More than 1.6 million people, a full 20 percent of all Arizonans, are consumers of benefits, goods and services of our public safety net.
One of the principal strengths of any state is its people. The degree to which we build the capacity of our citizenry is the degree to which we build our capacity as a state to compete in a global marketplace.
The change we seek is not only a structural change: It is a cultural change. The cultural change begins with repositioning the role of government within the administration of the public safety net.
While the government has a significant and important role to play in our safety net, it is but one actor in a feature with a massive ensemble cast. That cast includes every segment of our state: business, faith, philanthropy, education and John Q Citizen. All must be actors.
The cultural change also introduces the notion that people served must be equal participants in the plans and activities to increase their capacity - that truly nothing can be achieved without their commitment and effort.
While we seek to confront this problem in Arizona, it is truly one that is national in scope. The design and operation of the public safety net begin with the federal government. To that end, our initiative will work closely with all the agencies of the federal government that administer safety net programs to assist us in navigating the obstacles of the existing system and design the new construct.
We believe our efforts can develop a national blueprint for reinventing the American safety net.
We have no delusion about the breadth and scope of this task, but the size and complexity cannot deter us from this vital effort.
We also know that while we begin this effort today, it will take years to achieve this ambitious vision. In 1980, President Ronald Reagan talked about the debilitating nature of our welfare system.
He stated that providing an open-ended entitlement while requiring nothing of the recipient was problematic for the mind, body and spirit of the recipient. In addition, it was just bad economics.
Those words launched demonstrations in states all across America that 16 years later resulted in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996.
So, this is not an idea that can come to full fruition quickly, but we can certainly light the candle and show the way. Arizona's future will be brighter for this effort.
For More info
For more information on reinventing Arizona's safety net system, visit www.azdes.gov/transformation
Clarence H. Carter is the director of the Arizona Department of Economic Security