2021 Economic Mobility Legislative Summary

3/8/2022

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The “American Dream” is the belief that a person can attain economic success through hard work and grit, and that the next generation should prosper more than the generation before. This is becoming increasingly more difficult to attain for millions of families. In response, legislators have explored various strategies to mitigate financial burdens, particularly for low- and moderate-income families. Common strategies include bolstering workforce development and training opportunities, improving administrative and operational management of services, expanding access to public benefits and establishing loan forgiveness programs.

In 2021, most state legislatures took steps to increase economic stability for families, making it a bipartisan issue of interest. Forty-four states and the District of Columbia passed at least 277 bills related to economic mobility. Areas of focus included workforce development and training opportunities; access to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAP) and improving credit, lending and banking practices.

This report provides an overview of significant trends in enacted legislation. It does not represent a comprehensive list of enacted bills. For a full list of enacted economic mobility legislation in 2021, please visit NCSL’s Economic Mobility Database.

44 17 25 32 18 27 23 16 28 15 Workforce and Training Opportunities Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Other Eligibility Credit, Lending and Banking Number of States Enacting Bills Number of Enacted Bills

Workforce Development and Training Opportunities

Strengthening the workforce and preparing workers for today’s—and tomorrow’s—economy is integral for the nation’s economic success. Creating opportunities for improving employability and enhancing the workforce was a focus among state policymakers from across party lines. Legislatures in 25 states passed 44 bills related to workforce development and training opportunities.

Iowa (H 559) authorized its Economic Development Authority to provide financial assistance to qualifying apprenticeship sponsors for apprentices who will be employed in the state. To expand the state’s workforce development programs, Florida (H 1507) created the Office of Reimagining Education and Career Help to increase the level of collaboration and cooperation among businesses and education. The office is charged with establishing criteria and goals for workforce development and diversification, providing strategies to align and improve efficiency in the workforce development system and streamlining the clinical placement process for students, hospitals and other clinical sites.

Similarly, Colorado (H 1264) expanded access to funds for workforce development programs, and Arkansas (H 1875) reduced barriers to apprenticeship programs. These states’ strategies were different, but the goal was the same. Colorado created a cash fund for workers, employers and workforce centers to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and negative economic impacts. While Arkansas established the Earn and Learn Act to allow participants to earn a paycheck while fulfilling licensing requirements and gaining on-the-job training.

In Oregon, policymakers prioritized workforce collaboration and continuous improvement to help get people back to work. Oregon (S 623) required the State Workforce and Talent Development Board to collaborate with local workforce agencies and development boards to establish the Committee for Continuous Improvement. The committee is charged with assessing the effectiveness of Oregon’s public workforce development system by a) identifying and eliminating barriers that impede access to workforce programs and services by those most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, b) improving employment experiences and access to workforce programs for people in disenfranchised communities, and c) improving alignment between state agencies and nonprofit organizations that provide culturally specific and wraparound services.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

Food insecurity dramatically increased in recent years and was a focus for some state legislatures in 2021. Strategies for reducing food insecurity included bolstering workforce development, establishing incentives for using SNAP benefits—particularly for healthy or local food—and expanding access for recipients. Legislatures in 18 states passed 32 bills related to SNAP and economic mobility.

Nebraska (L 108) combined efforts to strengthen the state’s workforce and provide food assistance by allowing participants in employment and training pilot programs to maintain SNAP benefits while seeking employment with higher wages. Meanwhile, California (S 609) enhanced the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as CalFresh, by expanding eligibility. The bill adds adult education and career technical education programs to the list of programs eligible for employment and training exemptions.

Arizona (S 1845) requires its Department of Economic Security to plan, prepare and develop a program that incentivizes SNAP enrollees to purchase healthy foods. The incentive program matches up to $20 for SNAP enrollees and allows recipients to purchase Arizona-grown fruits and vegetables at farmer's markets, farm stands, mobile markets, community supported agriculture sites, grocery stores and convenience stores.

Similarly, Hawaii (S 512) expanded the state’s Double Up Food Bucks program by removing a $10 per visit per day limit on the dollar-for-dollar match. The bill also makes fresh fruits and vegetables and healthy proteins sold at farmers' markets, grocery stores and other direct food retailers accessible to families receiving SNAP benefits. Another strategy state legislatures used was to expand foods SNAP recipients can choose from. Maryland (H 101) established the Heat and Eat Program within SNAP to expand food access and options for eligible recipients.

In Missouri (H 432), lawmakers took a different approach by establishing the Protection of Vulnerable Persons Act. The bill revises the Missouri Farmers' Market Nutrition Program to expand food voucher eligibility to low-income pregnant and postpartum women, infants and children under 5 years of age who are at nutritional risk. This act also reauthorizes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) farmers' market pilot program until Aug. 28, 2027.

Credit, Lending and Banking

Lack of access to a bank account, affordable credit and other financial services is a major economic barrier for millions of families. Utilizing a checking and savings account can help facilitate homeownership, small-business development, increased savings and heightened economic security. Legislatures in 18 states passed 28 bills related to the intersection of economic mobility and credit, lending and banking.

Beginning in the 1930s, maps were created for mortgage lenders to inform them of potential areas of investment. Historically, neighborhoods comprised of minority populations were outlined in red, representing what was categorized as higher lending risks on mortgages for lenders. This practice of redlining lead to the denial of credit based on the location of property and was prohibited through the enactment of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. To help close appraisal gaps that occur in historically redlined neighborhoods, Maryland (H 1239 / S 859) created the Appraisal Gap From Historic Redlining Financial Assistance Program which provides financial assistance to affordable housing developers working in low-income census tracts.

Some states enacted legislation to improve access to education financing and address the impact of student loans on homeownership. Connecticut (HB 5610) requires the state’s Higher Education Supplemental Loan Authority to study the feasibility and implications of expanding access to student loans for people with a high debt-to-income ratio, low credit scores or insufficient credit history, and those who have been previously denied a loan. Maine (S.P. 562) now requires its Housing Authority and Finance Authority to study and implement programs that promote homeownership by reducing borrowers' education debt.

Eligibility for Benefits

Reassessing eligibility and modifying who qualifies for public assistance was another trend in 2021. Legislatures in 16 states passed 23 bills related to the eligibility for benefits.

Illinois (H 88) amended the Public Aid Code to allow people convicted of drug-related felonies to be eligible for cash assistance. West Virginia (S 387) examined the state’s eligibility criteria and re-established a drug-screening program for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) applicants. Under the revised law, if an applicant fails a drug screen, they must complete a substance abuse treatment and job skills program to continue receiving TANF benefits. If the applicant fails a second drug screen, they are suspended from the TANF program for one year. After a third failed drug screen, they are permanently terminated from TANF. Nevada (A 138) expands public assistance eligibility and removes the provisions that made a person convicted of drug-related felonies ineligible for TANF or SNAP benefits.

Massachusetts (H 4012) revised eligibility for Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children by not denying assistance based on the value of a family’s assets; however, any income generated by such assets may be considered countable income. Maine (H 538) also eliminated its asset test for all applicants and recipients of SNAP benefits.

To help SNAP recipients maximize their benefits, Colorado (H 1105) now requires the state’s Department of Human Services to implement a fuel assistance payment program that credits qualifying, low-income recipients’ accounts. Families that receive SNAP benefits but not Low-Income Energy Assistance Program (LEAP) benefits will be eligible for fuel assistance. In response to extreme weather events, Kansas (S 86) established the Extraordinary Utility Costs Loan Deposit program. The program provides incentives for making loans to eligible borrowers when extraordinary natural gas costs are incurred during extreme winter weather.

Other Notable Legislative Trends

Reentry and Reintegration

At least 22 states enacted legislation related to reentry and reintegration for those who were recently released from incarceration. Formerly incarcerated people face higher rates of unemployment and homelessness and ongoing debt accrued during their incarceration. This results in significant barriers to economic security and successful reentry into society. This can be particularly true for parents with child support obligations.

Louisiana (H 271) established a Transitional Residential Pilot Program for female offenders to reintegrate into their community. To reduce recidivism and help formerly incarcerated people reenter their communities, Tennessee (H 240) enacted legislation amending the current state code related to the development and operation of “transition centers.” The centers help with the crossover from incarceration to productive citizenship by providing services that help formerly incarcerated individuals make positive life changes. Programs help develop employment skills, conflict resolution strategies, and self-discipline.

To limit the debt court-involved individuals could face, a new law in Texas (H 80) forbids judges from requiring a defendant under the conservatorship of the Department of Family and Protective Services or in extended foster to pay any amount of court fines or costs. Instead, the judge may require the defendant to perform community service.

See NCSL’s Criminal Records and Reentry for more information about challenges and barriers for those recently released.

See NCSL’s Reentry and Criminal Records Enactment Database for specific state enactments.

Housing

Housing and economic mobility are inextricably linked, and a lack of affordable housing across the country is contributing to increased rates of homelessness and declining economic mobility. In 2021, at least three states enacted five bills related to housing and economic mobility. A recent report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition shows nearly 7 million affordable homes are needed nationwide for the approximately 11 million people in extremely low-income families.

States explored a variety of strategies in 2021 to address housing shortages. To help students in higher education, particularly those with unstable housing, California (S 330) requires the governing board of Los Angeles Community College District to implement a pilot program that provides affordable housing to students and employees of the district. The district must also prioritize low-income students experiencing homelessness for affordable units.

Connecticut (S 356) prioritized preserving existing affordable housing by creating an energy efficiency retrofit grant program. This program, administered by the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, will utilize funds from the federal government, corporations, nonprofit organizations and individual donors to develop the program. Upgrades to properties can include weatherization, solar panels, heat pumps, ventilation and other mitigators of health and safety hazards.

Arkansas (H 1642) allows for public housing authorities to prioritize a person who cooperates with the Office of Child Support Enforcement over a person who does not cooperate with the office.

A Look Ahead

Researchers suggest work can still be done to turn around the downward trend in economic mobility in the United States. State policies with bipartisan support that invest in education, equity and youth are promising strategies. In 2021, legislators prioritized the importance of restoring the American Dream, particularly for historically marginalized communities. Policies such as expanded tax credits, increased minimum wages and successful use of federal relief funds are gaining traction and will likely appear in upcoming legislative sessions. To address the financial challenges families experience, economic mobility will be a continued focus for state policymakers.

Additional Resources

Economic mobility is a vast and interrelated topic impacting children and their families. Please visit the following NCSL legislative databases for additional bill tracking information:

NCSL used StateNet, a legislative tracking database, in the preparation of this report. Summaries provided in this document and NCSL’s publicly available economic mobility bill tracking database are provided by StateNet and updated by NCSL.