the Beacon Journal editorial board

John Kasich was there when welfare as we knew it came to an end. The governor recalled the moment two decades ago in a commentary for the New York Times last week. He declared candidly and accurately: “ … it didn’t work — our welfare system still isn’t doing what it’s supposed to.”

No surprise the governor blamed Washington. He argued that what he and others set in motion, when he served as the chairman of the House Budget Committee, was undone partly by Congress a decade later as it reduced flexibility for states. He has a point. A narrowed definition of work put states in bind, and they responded in a way that bumped many of the poor from a program already with too restrictive time limits.

In 1996, 89 out of every 100 Ohio families in poverty received benefits. Today, the number is 26. The number of children in deep poverty, with incomes below half the poverty rate, has increased sharply.

The governor headed in the right direction in identifying “the root of the challenge” as “a fundamental disconnect between our worker-training and welfare systems.” Recall that the thrust of welfare reform was putting the poor on a path to employment. The concern then was that governments weren’t really committed, and that has proved true.

In his commentary, the governor cited efforts in Ohio to build a better connection. The state is seeking a federal waiver to gain more flexibility in crafting work and training requirements. It also is beginning an initiative to focus on young people, ages 16 to 24, providing comprehensive support to each participant with the goal of achieving self-sufficiency.

The concepts carry promise. They also represent a steep climb. For instance, a recent report for the Center for Community Solutions, a Cleveland-based think tank, found that in 2014, just 5.1 percent of welfare recipients left the program because they found work. Experts note, too, that addressing the needs of those young people will require new and sufficient training for caseworkers.

Success for welfare reform turns on states delivering. So they need flexibility. At the same time, the federal government must do a better job establishing standards and holding states accountable. That starts with ensuring that families in need receive adequate cash assistance, which is far from the case now. Evidence shows that even a small sum of additional money can elevate a household, yet just one-quarter of welfare funding goes to basic assistance.

Where is the money going? Not to work-related items, which cover just 8 percent of total funding. Here, too, Congress could be helpful by requiring states to invest adequately in work programs. This is the core of getting welfare reform right — providing a true safety net and a path to employment.

Add, as the Center for Community Solutions suggests in a paper released this month to mark the 20-year anniversary of welfare reform, the components of enthusiasm and research, from a renewed sense of “let’s make it work” to conducting research that drives good decision-making. The opening is there in the governor’s words and in a consensus around lessons learned about dignity and opportunity.