State Policy Network
Beacon Center research sparks much-needed debate on welfare reform in Tennessee

One in six people in Tennessee live in poverty. How can a state with historically low unemployment have a poverty rate of 16.7 percent? A close look reveals the state’s welfare programs may be hindering low-income Tennesseans from moving out of poverty and into prosperity.

Tennessee’s welfare programs often discourage work and punish personal initiative. A system that was originally intended to be a temporary safety net has evolved into a program that traps individuals in a cycle of dependency. This hurts not only the people struggling to make ends meet, it devastates the state’s economy.

Reforms are needed to help poor and underserved communities get the help they need while also removing the barriers that keep these people from transitioning into prosperity. When more families can support themselves without government assistance, communities are stronger. That’s what drove the Beacon Center of Tennessee to start a conversation on the much-needed welfare reform in the state. To begin, Beacon knew they needed to understand who was receiving welfare benefits and why.

Beacon released the report, “Poverty to Prosperity: Reforming Tennessee’s Public Assistance Programs,” in October 2019. The report found the state had accumulated more than $730 million in unspent federal dollars that was supposed to be used to help Tennesseans living in poverty find and sustain employment. Furthermore, the state spent $221 million in state tax dollars that could have been covered with federal money. That money could have been spent on other needed programs or used to cut taxes. This egregious example of waste and mismanagement triggered discussions on how to reform Tennessee’s broken welfare programs.

An excerpt from “Poverty to Prosperity: Reforming Tennessee’s Public Assistance Programs”

Beacon’s report included recommendations that would improve the lives of those in poverty while saving the state money. The Center encouraged policymakers to reinstate work requirements for able-bodied adults and focus efforts on providing employment, education, and training opportunities. By publishing this research and addressing poverty programs with a productive but empathetic tone that emphasized storytelling, Beacon was able to appeal to people on both sides of the political aisle.

Beacon hoped to earn substantial media attention so that popular opinion would help sway the Legislature to act. They earned more media coverage than expected, with outlets covering everything from the unspent federal dollars to the wasted state expenditure. In fact, Beacon received more than 200 media mentions, the most they’ve received on any research project to date. The report was covered across Tennessee, hitting every major media market.

In addition, Beacon’s CEO, Justin Owen, and a state representative discussed their own vision of reform for Tennessee. By offering not just critiques of the existing system but solutions and a vision for improvement, Beacon was able to drive meaningful change. Beacon had originally planned to lay the groundwork in 2020 that would enable change in 2021, but their efforts proved so effective that they had to expedite their engagement timeline. As a direct result of Beacon’s research, Tennessee’s Lt. Governor and Speaker of the House appointed a joint legislative working group made up of three senators and four representatives to start working on welfare reform in the state. The working group met several times during the 2020 legislative session and will continue their work into 2021.

Beacon’s video with state Rep. Dan Howell on his personal welfare story.

This impact earned the Beacon Center a nomination for SPN’s Bob Williams Awards for Outstanding Policy Achievement, and a finalist status in the Most Influential Research category. Congratulations to the Beacon Center of Tennessee for sparking an important conversation on welfare reform in the Volunteer State.

Organization: State Policy Network