Politics & Policy

Put Work Requirements for Food Stamps on Steroids

(Photo: Carolyn Franks/Dreamstime)
States have tried it, and it works. Congress should apply the lesson at the federal level.

President Trump’s recently released budget should start a long overdue conversation about the next round of welfare reform in America. The new budget rightfully prioritizes work requirements. They protect resources for the truly needy and unlock economic opportunity for those trapped in entitlement programs. When work requirements are implemented, able-bodied adults go back to work in hundreds of different industries, doubling their incomes within just a year. Higher incomes more than offset lost benefits, with those leaving welfare better off than they ever were on it.

There is no doubt the public supports work requirements. They are backed by around 80 percent of Americans, including 70 percent of Democrats, with wide support for extending work requirements to new programs and populations.

President Trump’s budget emphasizes work. President Trump’s budget calls for reforms that “return [enrollees] to the work force,” echoing statements in both his inaugural and joint address to Congress. The budget calls for reinforcing work for able-bodied adults without kids and for extending work requirements for the able-bodied on Medicaid.

Research has shown that work works. Only 3 percent of full-time, year-round workers are in poverty. Prioritizing work matters not only for individuals but for their kids and their community. One of the strongest predictors of the future success of children is the labor-participation rate of the adults in their community. In other words, current welfare policies are playing a part in sentencing a generation of kids to lifelong poverty in many communities and neighborhoods.

States have shown another way. In 2013, Kansas governor Sam Brownback bucked the national trend and instructed state officials to reinstate work requirements and time limits for able-bodied adults without children.

Before making these changes, just 20 percent of able-bodied adults on food stamps were working, and most were in severe poverty. After the change, employment among both those leaving the program and those who remained soared. More employment meant higher incomes: Wages more than doubled on average. The amount of time able-bodied adults spent on the program was also cut in half, an important metric when less time spent on welfare translates into faster entry into the work force, higher wages, and larger income growth. The work requirement put a laser focus on the end goal of employment for everyone.

Maine followed in 2015, quickly moving thousands of able-bodied adults out of dependency and into self-sufficiency. Individuals reconnected with their communities through volunteering or employment. Incomes rose by an average of 114 percent. Thanks to the higher income, poverty rates have declined, and now able-bodied adults are working and no longer in poverty.

Larger states have followed, including Florida and North Carolina, watching as hundreds of thousands reenter the workforce and leave food stamps.

So why don’t we have more work requirements? There remains a strange disconnect when it comes to work requirements. The evidence is clear that these reforms helped single mothers on TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and able-bodied childless adults between the ages of 18 and 49 on food stamps. So why don’t we apply the same standard to parents on food stamps, a 51-year able-bodied adult, or to anyone on Medicaid?

Only 3 percent of full-time, year-round workers are in poverty.

States’ first step should be to enforce existing requirements. Although parents on food stamps have a work-registration requirement, it’s weak and most states don’t meaningfully enforce it. Given the proven track record of work requirements, it should be a no-brainer for states to unlock economic self-sufficiency by enforcing any employment-related requirement it can.

Fortunately, several states are now exploring this approach. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, for example, included in his 2017 budget a five-county pilot program to require that for an adult to continue receiving food stamps, he must participate in an employment and training program, work 80 hours a month, or some combination of the two. The pilot would apply to parents with children over the age of six and to adults who are 18 to 60 years old and living in a household with a child.

Wisconsin’s employment and training program includes “job search activities, education and vocational training, workfare and work experience, self-employment, and job retention services.” At the federal level, Congress may want to consider imposing a clear and robust work requirement for parents but enforcing the looser current law of work registration for parents is a good first step — or some variation of what Wisconsin is attempting.

Congress should expand work requirements. The American Health Care Act (AHCA) that passed the House included a state option for implementing work requirements for able-bodied adults on Medicaid. The Senate version had similar provisions. Numerous states across the country — from Arizona to Kansas, Kentucky to Maine, Arkansas to Wisconsin — have expressed interest in work requirements for Medicaid.

Washington should listen to the American people and apply work requirements to more populations and more programs. The shared goal is more income for low-income Americans through more work, which leaves fewer people lingering on social-service programs, isolated from their communities, and with little hope for a better future. Our country can’t afford to fail our neighbors on this question. We must protect resources for the truly needy.


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