Politics & Policy

Food Stamps, without Work Requirements

(Spencer Platt Collection/Getty)
In 42 states, able-bodied adults collect benefits without working.

The Great Recession ended more than 1,900 days ago, and the national unemployment rate is 5.9 percent — but many able-bodied adults in 42 states nevertheless continue to collect long-term food-stamp benefits without working, volunteering, or training for a job.

Unless a state has extraordinarily high unemployment or a dearth of jobs, able-bodied adults who are younger than 50 and without a dependent must spend 20 hours a week productively if they wish to continue drawing food-stamp benefits longer than three months — or so says a policy enacted as part of the 1996 welfare reforms.

But Congress temporarily suspended this work requirement during the Great Recession, and the number of able-bodied, childless beneficiaries ballooned, accounting for more than one in ten of all participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Today, 28 states continue to waive the work requirement altogether, despite an average unemployment rate of 6.72 percent. (The nationwide unemployment rate reached 10 percent during the fallout from the recession and now stands just below 6 percent.) An additional 13 states have waived the work requirement in some parts of their states, despite an average unemployment rate of just 4.58.

The unemployment rate alone isn’t indicative of whether jobs are available, says Lawrence Mead, an American Enterprise Institute scholar who has studied mandatory work requirements. But he says his own research has suggested that employment opportunities remained open for able-bodied adults with low skills, even during the recession.

“I think the recession was unduly severe, and many states reasoned that unskilled workers should have food stamps,” Mead says. “The fear was that after three months, people would be thrown off food stamps and they’d be destitute. But I don’t think that happened: Jobs remained available, there were ways to survive. I think this [waiver] was well-intentioned, but it’s turned out not to be a crisis. . . . It’s not a good thing to waive this. Jobs are available, so people should have to work.”

Slowly, states are beginning to come around to Mead’s point of view. On October 1, both Maine and New Mexico gave up their federal waivers, reestablishing the work requirement. Indiana will follow next spring.

New Mexico’s terminated waiver will affect around 80,000 of the state’s 420,000 SNAP recipients, says Matt Kennicott, a spokesman for the Human Services Department.

“We think it’s important to continue giving New Mexicans a hand up, and that’s exactly what removing the waiver does,” he says. “It helps them find employment, and in other cases, it helps give them job training and job skills that they might not necessarily have had.”

Kennicott tells NRO that the issue has not been much politicized in New Mexico. “I don’t know why the candidates haven’t picked it up,” he adds.

But in Maine, as I reported last week, the end of the work-requirement waiver and other related policies regarding the food-stamp and cash-benefit programs has become a central campaign issue. Indeed, the neck-and-neck gubernatorial race is widely viewed as a state referendum on welfare reform. 

Mary Mayhew, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, says that welfare reform, including ending the waiver, is “absolutely a strong issue” for Republican governor Paul LePage.

“[LePage] has been passionate about breaking generational poverty . . . [and] that message has resonated throughout the state and on both sides of the aisle. His efforts to eliminate fraud, waste, and abuse in the programs is also widely supported throughout the state,” Mayhew tells NRO.

If a 2012 Rasmussen poll is any indication, voters agree; it found that 83 percent of adults supported a work requirement for welfare recipients, and only 7 percent outright opposed it. Other states should take note.

— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.

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