‘We will get our people off of welfare and back to work,” President Trump said in his inaugural address. He continued that theme the next month at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference. “It’s time for all Americans to get off of welfare and get back to work,” he told the crowd. “You’re going to love it, you’re going to love it, you’re going to love it.” And in his address to a joint session of Congress a few days later, the president boldly declared that “millions lifted from welfare to work is not too much to expect.”
This was music to the ears of hard-working Americans across the country, after eight long years of welfare expansion and increased dependency. But how can President Trump deliver on these promises?
First things first: The Trump administration should not allow states to continue waiving food-stamp work requirements. These requirements have been a part of the food-stamp program (for non-disabled childless adults) since the Clinton-era welfare reforms of the 1990s. However, federal regulations allow the Department of Agriculture to grant waivers if states request them.
Although federal law authorizes waivers only when the state unemployment rate exceeds 10 percent or a state has insufficient employment opportunities, states with unemployment rates as low as 4.5 percent are currently waiving work requirements. With waivers in effect, food stamps quickly trap their recipients in dependency. What incentive do struggling Americans have to find employment and raise their standards of living when they face no time limits or requirement to work?
In many states that also waive asset tests and use loopholes to raise income limits, all someone has to do to stay on welfare forever is keep breathing — and even breathing is sometimes optional, as an unknown number of deceased people remain on welfare rolls across the country.
Alternatively, enforcement of work standards requires only 20 hours a week of work, training, or volunteering for able-bodied childless enrollees; this has proven to be a wildly effective way to reduce dependency and help people get back on their feet. Kansas put such requirements back into place a few years ago, and enrollment soon plummeted by more than 75 percent. Fewer people were dependent on government (read: taxpayers) and were instead providing for themselves.
Enforcement of work standards has proven to be a wildly effective way to reduce dependency and help people get back on their feet.
Isn’t this what we all want? Shouldn’t we be measuring success by this standard — the number of people who no longer need government assistance? But that’s not the end of the story. Kansas also instituted an innovative tracking system to see what happened to the adults who left welfare. What they found is that incomes rose significantly. They more than doubled. The former recipients were making more money than their previous incomes plus their welfare benefits. They are better off today than they were on welfare. Maine has done the same tracking and found similar results.
Crazy as it sounds, 42 states were waiving these work requirements in some or all areas just a few years ago. Today, just seven states have no work requirements at all.
This is a victory worth protecting — for taxpayers, for enrollees who are freed from welfare, and for truly needy individuals who depend on it. President Trump can protect these gains by not approving new waivers or extending existing waivers when they come up for renewal.
Second, the Trump administration should empower states to expand work requirements to new populations within the food-stamp program. While work is currently mandated only for non-disabled adults without dependent children, the evidence from Kansas and Maine suggests that work requirements would help free millions more individuals from welfare if they were expanded to all able-bodied, working-age adults.
Public support for this expansion is broad. According to the Foundation for Government Accountability, 76 percent of voters, including 58 percent of Democrats, support the expansion of work requirements to all able-bodied adults.
The Trump administration will likely have a chance to weigh in on this soon. Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin has already proposed an expansion of work requirements to non-disabled parents with school-age children. The measure would require federal approval. If President Trump approves Walker’s request, he won’t just be making a tremendous impact on the lives of Wisconsinites. He’ll be paving the way for more states to follow suit, potentially saving taxpayers more than $120 billion over the next decade.
Finally, the Trump administration should allow the expansion of work requirements into Medicaid. States are already clamoring for this flexibility. In addition to Governor Walker, Governor Paul LePage of Maine has already signaled that they will ask for Medicaid work requirements for parents. And countless other Republican governors, from Arkansas to Arizona, have said they want work requirements in their Medicaid expansions that serve able-bodied, working-age adults. They should be given that chance.
The facts are clear: People can’t escape poverty without a job. They can’t pursue the American dream without a job. And without work requirements, too many Americans will remain trapped in welfare, without incentives to improve their lives. By making some relatively minor policy changes, President Trump can make a huge difference.
— Nic Horton is a senior research fellow for the Foundation for Government Accountability.