Conservatives Get a Stronger Voice on Poverty

There's been no national conservative organization pushing states to adopt their ideas about programs for the poor -- until now.
by | August 2015
Jason Turner founded the Secretaries' Innovation Group in 2012. (C-SPAN)

Kansas and Maine have made headlines in recent months for enacting conservative reforms to their human services programs for low-income residents. Now a burgeoning national organization wants to spread initiatives like those and provide a place for officials to exchange other conservative ideas for reforming the safety net at the state level.

In recent decades, partisan groups have sprouted up to represent all sorts of state and local government officials: Governors, attorneys general, secretaries of state, state legislators and mayors all have national political bodies with specific ideological bents. But until now, there wasn’t a partisan equivalent for state officials who oversee public programs for the poor. That’s the purpose of the Secretaries’ Innovation Group (SIG), which brings together conservative state secretaries of human services and lobbies for their priorities.

Members of the group must work for a Republican governor and must adopt an “activist” approach to reforming the nation’s safety net programs. That means “you don’t want to be just presiding over a government agency,” says Executive Director Jason Turner, who founded the group in 2012. “You want to actively promote change.” The organization seeks to limit government spending, support state autonomy and tighten work requirements within the nation’s antipoverty programs.

Before forming the group, Turner oversaw departments of human services under former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. More recently, he’s worked for Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner. So far, SIG has held nine conferences around the country, putting members in the same room with poverty researchers, federal officials and other state secretaries.

The conservative critique of government assistance is that the programs induce dependency and anchor people in perpetual poverty. The solution? Limit aid and add incentives to find employment. Maine offers an example. Under Mary Mayhew, Maine’s commissioner of health and human services, the state has added welfare fraud investigators, instituted drug testing of ex-felons in its cash assistance program and ordered towns to stop using state welfare funds to cover emergency expenses for undocumented immigrants. After shorter time limits were imposed for families on cash assistance, caseloads fell more than 50 percent in three years.

Or consider SIG’s proposals for modifying the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Households on SNAP wouldn’t be able to use their benefits to buy soda, candy and other unhealthy food. In an attempt to screen for fraud, states would be required to place photos on debit cards that store SNAP benefits. Currently, the federal government allows states to waive work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependent children when local unemployment is high; SIG would do away with the waivers, even during economic downturns.

Turner envisions SIG as more than just a vehicle for communicating ideas across state lines. It’s also a way for conservative secretaries in human services to lobby Congress with one voice. Mayhew and other members of SIG have signed off on white papers aimed at altering federal disability insurance, unemployment insurance and food assistance. In the span of a few years, they’ve become fixtures at congressional committee hearings on public assistance; the powerful House Ways and Means Committee regularly requests testimony from SIG members. The group last year persuaded Republican lawmakers to fund 10 pilot projects that will test experimental SNAP employment and training programs.

“They are a voice that is very attentively listened to on the Hill,” says Douglas Besharov, a conservative poverty researcher who has attended SIG conferences and testified before the House. Besharov points out that the group’s membership now represents 18 of the 31 states with Republican governors, and many of them personally attend the conferences. “There’s strength in numbers. This is a lot of states with a lot of influential people.”