It turns out that work requirements . . . work.
According to the Alabama Department of Human Resources, between January 1 and May 1, 13 counties in the Yellowhammer State saw their food-stamp rolls drop by a combined 85 percent. The reason? At the beginning of the year, those 13 counties joined the rest of the state in ending a years-long exemption from work requirements for ABAWDs — able-bodied adults without dependents — participating in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. On New Year’s Day, there were 5,538 ABAWD enrollees across the 13 formerly exempted counties; by the beginning of May, there were 831. That mirrors a sharp statewide decline, which began on January 1, 2016, when the same exemption ended in Alabama’s 54 other counties. At the beginning of last year, the state had 49,940 able-bodied adults without dependents on its SNAP rolls; by May 1 of this year, that number was 7,483 — a drop of 85 percent.
Since 1996, when Bill Clinton and Republican majorities in Congress aimed to “end welfare as we know it,” food stamps have come with a catch for certain beneficiaries: Able-bodied SNAP participants can receive no more than three months of benefits in a 36-month period, unless they are working or participating in an approved training program for at least 20 hours a week. This requirement is regularly characterized as “harsh” by critics, who point to areas that face persistently lousy labor markets — California’s Central Valley, for example — or that suffer natural disasters. To accommodate such circumstances, states have long enjoyed occasional waivers (courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP through the Food and Nutrition Service), provided they can show that an area is beset by high unemployment (generally, 10 percent or higher).
In the late 1990s, the share of Americans living in a county or city waived from SNAP’s work requirements was under 20 percent. It climbed a bit during the George W. Bush administration, to about one-third. But in 2009, a waiver program designed to accommodate exceptional circumstances became a national panacea. As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, signed into law by President Obama that February, Congress “temporarily” suspended the conditions on ABAWD SNAP enrollees nationwide. The suspension was supposed to extend only through 2010, but no government initiative is temporary. Eight years later, ABAWD time-limit waivers are still in effect in at least part of 36 states; ten states remain entirely exempt.
In the late 1990s, the share of Americans living in a county or city waived from SNAP’s work requirements was under 20 percent.
The downsizing going on in several states shows that, if the nationwide waiver was wise in 2009 (certainly a matter for debate), the time for it has passed. Georgia still enjoys a partial SNAP waiver, but several of its counties have reinstituted work requirements. The results have been dramatic. Georgia began last year with three counties in the northwestern part of the state (Cobb, Gwinnett, and Hall Counties). Their combined ABAWD enrollment fell 75 percent over the course of the year (6,102 to 1,490). This year, Georgia expanded the effort to another 21 counties. Their enrollment of able-bodied recipients plummeted from 11,779 to 4,258 over the first four months of this year, a 62 percent drop. According to the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, the number of ABAWD enrollees statewide has dropped 21 percent since the start of 2016.
Some states have been more aggressive. In 2013, Kansas rejected the federal waiver, reinstituting work requirements in October of that year. By November 2015, the number of able-bodied adults on SNAP in Kansas had fallen by 72 percent (27,224 to 7,511). Maine, which did the same thing in the fall of 2014, saw an 80 percent drop by the following March (13,332 to 2,678).
Critics of work requirements regularly condemn the restrictions on access, alleging that they consign hundreds of thousands of needy men and women to hunger. But it’s simply not so. If food stamps were necessary at the levels that Kansas’s and Maine’s programs were maintaining in 2011 and 2012, we would see the costs of those former enrollees showing up elsewhere — in the state’s welfare budgets or, at the extremes, in the budgets of food pantries, municipal services, hospitals, and morgues. But that is not happening. In fact, one year after Maine reinstated its work requirements for able-bodied adults, those who had cycled off the program had seen their incomes, on average, more than double — an increase that more than compensated for the lost benefits.
The overall food-stamp population remains large: Forty-four million Americans — about one in seven — at a cost of $71 billion to the federal government last year. Compared to other categories of recipient, that of able-bodied adults without dependents is small. But more than savings is at stake in removing clingers-on from the dole. A free people does not depend on the government for its daily bread. Those who can work, should. Moreover, there will always be those in need of help. Ensuring that our limited welfare resources go to those who genuinely need them means ensuring that those who can work, do.
— Ian Tuttle is the Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow at the National Review Institute.