North Carolina lawmakers on Thursday heard from experts on the so-called “One Door” welfare reform policy implemented by Utah, a policy that advocates say helped to streamline the system and get more welfare recipients back into the labor force. 

The legislature could convene a study committee to examine similar reforms in the Tar Heel State.

The US Census Bureau reports that 129 million Americans lived in a house receiving one or more means-tested safety-net benefits in 2022. The federal government spends over $1 trillion on these programs each year.

North Carolina has 300,000 open jobs while around 1.4 million individuals are on food stamps — known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — and around 2.5 million are on Medicaid.

Advocates of One Door reforms argue that the current social safety net is challenging to navigate and keeps recipients stuck in generational poverty. Recipients choose to work less or shy away from marriage in order to avoid losing benefits, resulting in high rates of single-parent households.

“When people don’t work, their physical health declines, their psychological well-being declines,” Leslie Ford, an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute’s Center on Opportunity and Social Mobility, told a legislative oversight committee. “But when they move from welfare to work, we see financial strain declines, food insecurity drops. We see their physical, emotional, and psychological health improves. And we even see better health and education outcomes for their children,” said Leslie Ford, an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute’s Center on Opportunity and Social Mobility, told a legislative oversight committee.

Utah’s story

The Beehive State created the original One Door policy in 1997. That state’s reforms consolidated 23 welfare programs across six agencies into one department and fully integrated the social safety net into workforce development programs.

This created a stronger link between the net that catches individuals and the system that puts them back on their feet toward a more prosperous future, supporters say.

“[In Utah], when you come in for SNAP, you’re going to get employment help. When you come in for Medicaid, you’re going to get employment help. It’s a system where you’re always directed toward flourishing,” Ford said.

Prior to the reforms, Utah’s employment-to-population ratio was 4.2 percentage points above the national average. Today, that ratio stands at 7.3 percentage points higher.

Federal, state reforms

Advocates of the One Door suggest several reforms. The first is to pass a federal One Door bill that would allow states to integrate their safety-net programs with workforce development systems. Under the current version of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, states are barred from implementing such reforms. Utah was grandfathered in and is the only exception.

US Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and U.S. Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, have introduced bills in each chamber that would achieve this end.

At the state level in North Carolina, lawmakers are limited in what can be accomplished without federal intervention. But one step is to create a task force to study the issue.

During the legislative oversight committee meeting on Thursday, lawmakers raised question about the current welfare structure and the ways it creates dependency. They said the goal of reforms should be to create an environment where welfare isn’t even necessary.

Sen. Tim Moffitt, R-Henderson, noted that much of the focus is on single-parent households headed by mothers.

“This underscores something that I’ve been paying attention to for the last several years,” said Moffitt. “There is a true crisis among men. Where are the fathers of these children? What role are they not fulfilling as the backbone of the family? Even if the mom and dad are no longer together, the father still has a responsibility.”

“These programs are really band aids to a greater problem. And I think that we need to have an honest discussion about what that problem is,” Moffitt added.