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Working on Food Stamps

A House GOP reform would help able-bodied get off the dole.

April 11, 2018
A common refrain from businesses is that they can’t find enough workers. The unemployment rate is a low 4.1%, but one reason for the shortage are government benefits that corrode a culture of work. So credit to House Republicans for trying to fix disincentives in food stamps amid what are sure to be nasty and dishonest attacks.

House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway on Thursday will introduce a farm bill, though food stamps absorb much of the cost. More than 40 million Americans are in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the official name for food stamps, and the figure is up from about 17 million in 2000. The size of the benefits has also increased, and the program cost has exploded to about $70 billion a year.

More Americans need assistance during recessions like 2008, but the question is why so many have stayed on food stamps even amid the long expansion. The American Enterprise Institute’s Robert Doar in 2014 compared the post-2008 recovery to the recession in the early 1980s. If folks had left the program at similar rates to the 1980s, food stamps would have had 36 million beneficiaries by 2013. Instead there were 47.6 million.

One result is that many Americans haven’t returned to the labor force. Enter the House’s first proposal: A 20 hours a week work requirement for able-bodied adults, ages 18 through 59. This usually elicits panic about child labor or single moms, but the requirement does not apply to seniors, children, the disabled, or anyone who cares for a child under six or is pregnant. That exemption covers roughly two-thirds of everyone on food stamps.

The folks subject to the work rule have many ways to satisfy the requirement, including apprenticeships that could contribute to higher earnings later. States will have to offer access to training programs, which can also count as work. The bill stipulates case management and other techniques to help people transition off assistance.

Food stamps already has a de minimis work rule for some participants, but states have applied for waivers and exemptions that have diluted it. Yet the results of real welfare work requirements in states have been encouraging, including former Governor Sam Brownback’s reform in Kansas. A Foundation for Government Accountability paper last year noted that Kansas tracked 6,000 families who moved off welfare and went to work in 600 different industries. Incomes on average more than doubled over a year.

The House proposal includes other good ideas, notably eliminating “broad-based categorical eligibility.” This is a notorious loophole that declares someone eligible for food stamps because he received a brochure on heating assistance or a number for a hot line. The bill retains cross-eligibility that allow the truly needy to qualify for multiple programs without redundant asset tests.

The politics of all this are tough. The House Freedom Caucus will pan such changes as “welfare reform lite.” The Senate won’t want to take hard votes in an election year. Yet this isn’t a budget slasher and merely reorients money and incentives. That will make it harder for Senators to pretend this “guts” the program, as some falsely said about Medicaid last year.

Democrats have attacked the plan with packaged lines that the GOP will kick millions off the rolls. The work rule doesn’t bounce a single person. One irony is that the left says work requirements are misguided because most recipients already work. Then why fight a requirement?

Those who stop receiving benefits because of a work requirement will fall into two categories: They refused to work or train for work. Or they found a job and no longer need assistance, which is supposed to be a success story. The GOP’s work requirements—explained accurately—poll well with the public because Americans think working is a fair trade for helping those who have fallen on tough times.

The program is supposed to be “supplemental,” but progressives have transformed it into a permanent entitlement. The GOP’s 1996 welfare reform was an historic success, and fixing food stamps is a chance to do it again.