Republicans have proposed strengthening work requirements on able-bodied adults receiving food stamps. Not surprisingly, the liberal crowd is up in arms about this allegedly cruel proposal that will, they claim, deny food to poor Americans. Economist Paul Krugman has chimed in, asserting that these proposals promote a false negative stereotype that recipients are not interested in working. He writes:
Able-bodied SNAP recipients who should be working but aren’t are very hard to find: A vast majority of the program’s beneficiaries either are working — but at unstable jobs that pay low wages — or are children, elderly, disabled or essential family caregivers.
When you look at the study Krugman links to, however — from the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities — you find that in a given month in mid 2012, only 52 percent of non-disabled adults on food stamps worked. Adding those who had worked at any point in the previous year and those who worked at any point in the following year, the number rises only to 74 percent. Thus, more than one-quarter of all these adults were distant from work by any measure. Moreover, both the report and Krugman assume, rather than demonstrate, that the inability to sustain employment had to do with unstable jobs, since looking at the behaviors of the unemployed would be blaming the victims.
Liberals also falsely imply that non-workers would be forced off food stamps. In reality, the House bill would require that they enter into work-related programs, similar to what was done during the Clinton-era welfare changes.
This is also similar to what has been done in recent years in Maine and Kansas. On the surface, at least, these two state initiatives seem to have been successful in shifting food-stamp recipients to work and shrinking the rolls. Within four months of implementation in Maine, the number of able-bodied single adults went from 16,000 to 4,500 and down to 1,500 one year later. Tracking the incomes of 7,000 adults who cycled off food stamps, Maine found that their incomes went up 114 percent. If Krugman were acting as an economist rather than an ideologue, he would have noted and criticized these results, as some others have done.
While such a provision is not in the House bill, many have also advocated banning the use of food stamps to purchase sugary drinks and snack foods. The Department of Agriculture estimated that almost 20 percent of food-stamps expenditures are on these items. Michelle Obama was applauded for her efforts to promote fresh fruits and vegetables, which led the government to fund programs increasing the value of food stamps spent on those items. In contrast, a number of states and cities, including Maine, Minnesota, and New York City, argue for another strategy: simply excluding sweetened beverages from allowable food-stamp purchases.
For these liberals, poor people should be treated as victims and should not have any personal obligations imposed on them as a condition for receiving their entitlements.
The New York Times reported on a study that estimated the effects of a ban on sugary drinks, as compared with incentivizing the purchase of fruits and vegetables. Incentives would do little. Banning sugary drinks, on the other hand, “would be expected to significantly reduce obesity prevalence and Type 2 diabetes incidence, particularly among ages 18 to 65 and some racial and ethnic minorities.” The evidence notwithstanding, Michelle Obama was silent when Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed such restrictions for New York City. As Time magazine reported, “instead of attacking the sugary, carbonated drinks and juices that contribute to the widening of waistlines of our nation’s kids, [Obama’s] ‘Drink Up’ attempted to flood the market with positive, pro-water messaging.” Heavy lobbying by beverage companies convinced the Department of Agriculture to block the proposed exclusions.
Why didn’t Michelle Obama use her platform to defeat the beverage companies? For her and other liberals, positive incentives are the only acceptable way to change adverse behaviors. Anything else is unacceptably paternalistic. Liberals fought against work requirements for welfare recipients two decades ago, and now they fight against those requirements for able-bodied food-stamp recipients. For these liberals, poor people should be treated as victims and should not have any personal obligations imposed on them as a condition for receiving their entitlements.
Implementing new work requirements certainly poses some challenges. For example, Maine may have had too few training centers, making it unfairly difficult for some to enroll. We should not, however, allow these risks to stop us from encouraging individuals to gain self-sufficiency.