Since President Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty in 1964, the federal government has spent $23 trillion attempting to alleviate poverty. Today, we spend almost $1 trillion annually on over 80 programs to help those in need.

Despite this significant investment, very little progress has been made in reducing poverty. In 2017, 12.3 % of Americans lived in poverty, just slightly below the 1966 rate of 14.7%.

In short, it’s clear the status quo isn’t working.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to combating poverty in our country. Every community’s struggles are different. And we’ve found, after talking with hardworking individuals across our home states, that the solutions need to come from within our local communities, not from a bureaucrat sitting in Washington, D.C. It’s folks on the ground in our states who can best identify the challenges that low-income families and individuals are facing and then work to create pathways to lift families out of poverty.

When we travel around our states we hear from folks who are struggling to make ends meet. And oftentimes, they feel like their progress is hampered by current federal programs.

The reality is, despite over 80 programs and billions of taxpayer dollars spent annually, the federal government is failing to address the barriers to self-sufficiency trapping those living in poverty. Maybe worst of all, these programs punish self-sufficiency by penalizing folks when they gain employment or get a raise.

Take, for example, a single mom working at an assisted living center in Lenox, Iowa. She began working at the facility as a certified nursing assistant and quickly excelled. She was offered a promotion. But because the higher income level would put her over the threshold for certain government assistance, she found out taking the promotion would actually cost her $200 a month. Note that she still took the promotion because she wanted to do better for her child, but for many, such a decision could be much more costly and too risky.

In South Carolina, various agencies administer programs designed to alleviate poverty and transition folks who are struggling into the workforce, where they can better support themselves and their families. Unfortunately, because of bureaucratic requirements and outdated rules drafted in Washington, agencies’ hands are often tied when it comes to streamlining services, coordinating case management, and leveraging the tools needed to empower South Carolinians to achieve upward mobility.

While federal programs might be well-intentioned, they are not well-designed to actually help folks escape poverty. That’s why we need common-sense legislation — such as our Economic Mobility, Prosperity, and Opportunity with Waivers that Enable Reforms for States (EMPOWERS) Act — that gives states the ability to develop solutions to best utilize federal resources in order to empower families and individuals to find long-term success.

Our bill would allow states, such as our home states of Iowa, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, to submit a proposal, or request for a waiver, for a cost-neutral pilot program designed to reduce poverty and promote employment, financial literacy, family stability, and self-sufficiency for participants. In addition, our sensible bill would create the Interagency Board for Empowering Low-Income Families to oversee the waiver process. The Board would be responsible for reviewing proposals and ensuring that projects do not have benefit cliffs — such as the one the young Iowa worker faced — which can result in a net loss in a household’s resources when they increase their wages or hours worked.

This legislation would allow state and local organizations to tailor anti-poverty programs to the particular needs of these Americans, ensuring that they can realize their full potential.

One of the foundations of our country is that, regardless of one’s background, every person who works hard should have the opportunity to succeed. The EMPOWERS Act would help us live up to this cherished ideal by enabling states to develop and test new ideas to help folks reach their full potential and, ultimately, to change the status quo.

Click here to read the senators' op-ed in the Washington Examiner.