Spotlight Exclusives

How State Economic Security Policies Measure Up

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Four years after the end of the Great Recession, working families continue to struggle against stagnant incomes, high long-term unemployment, the growth of low-wage jobs, and misguided cuts to safety net programs. Our uneven economic recovery underlines the need for public policies that address these crises, and, due to gridlock and obstructionism in Congress, state governments represent the best opportunity to make needed policy changes. From managing public assistance programs to funding preschool and job training, state policies can play a significant role in supporting families and making proactive investments in our future workforce and economy.

To better inform the decisions of state lawmakers and advance policies that build economic security, Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW) recently released the Economic Security Scorecard, a national report card that grades states on how well their policies promote the financial well-being of low- and moderate-income households. The scorecard looks at state policy choices that comprise the five basic elements of economic security: income, job quality, education and training, public supports, and savings and assets.
Given well-known partisan disagreements on policies such as Medicaid expansion and raising the minimum wage, coupled with the record number of supermajorities in state legislatures, one might assume that such a measure would reflect the supposedly stark divide between how red and blue states tackle such policy questions.  One might guess that grades would confirm the impression, as The New York Times editorial board recently put it, that the country is a “patchwork of conscience and callousness.” But WOW۪s scorecard presents a more complex and telling story.

In comparing over 80 different policy choices, the Economic Security Scorecard finds that almost all states fall short of adequately promoting economic security policies for workers, families and seniors. Most states earned a grade of C-, and only one, Washington State, earned a grade higher than a C. Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Utah ranked last with a grade of D .

States۪ grades and rankings are the sum of many policy decisions, not just those at the forefront of the political debate. Expanding access to health insurance and increasing the minimum wage would certainly benefit working families, but these sometimes divisive policies are not the only tools that state legislators have at their disposal to improve family economic security. Again, the scorecard compares over 80 policy choices in over 20 policy areas. Lawmakers in every state and from both parties should pursue all of these policies, which promise to raise job quality, encourage asset-building, protect consumers, and invest in education, workforce development, and public assistance.

A comprehensive review of these individual policy grades, however, finds that few, if any, states have distinguished themselves as champions of working families or struggling seniors. Only a handful have implemented comprehensive family leave plans, ensured all workers access to paid sick time, provide adequate child care assistance, or made strong investments in early childhood education. Such policies are critical for citizens۪ economic security and should be high priorities for all state lawmakers.

The scorecard also reveals that states۪ efforts to promote economic security on certain fronts can be undermined by other, weaker policies. For example, in states with higher minimum wages, workers may still lack access to earned sick time and family leave, or the minimum wage may not be indexed to inflation. A state may succeed in expanding unemployment insurance to a greater proportion of their residents, but neglect to create dependent tax credits that support the security of children.

Importantly, WOW۪s research finds that a state۪s grades are not strongly related to, or limited by, its budget size, fiscal health, or median household income. Instead, the capacity of a state to enact these policies is more likely a function of political and public will. This means that lawmakers in every state from Massachusetts to Mississippi, regardless of the size of their tax base or leaders۪ partisan affiliation have the power to invest in workers and ensure all families can achieve economic security.

Moreover, a state۪s efforts to advance the policies measured by the scorecard represent its best strategy for improving its economic and fiscal health. Secure families with good jobs can support local businesses, creating the economic demand that drives future hiring and growth.  This strengthens communities, our economy and states۪ budgets.  Using the Economic Security Scorecard as a guide, legislators, citizens and advocates should look to improving their state۪s policy choices in order to better respond to our uneven economic recovery and rebuild the middle class.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Matt Unrath is the director of national projects at Wider Opportunities for Women.

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