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A growing economy provides opportunity to move more Americans off food stamps

Houston Chronicle 
By Ranking Member K. Michael Conaway (TX-11) and Horace Cooper, co-chairman of the Project 21 Black Leadership Network

The American economy is growing rapidly, unemployment is at historic lows and job opportunities are everywhere. We can all agree it is a terrific time for Americans looking to enter the workforce.

But when the Trump administration recently finalized a rule that simply holds states accountable to the bipartisan 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, commonly known as President Bill Clinton’s signature welfare reform, there was a flurry of outrage and hyperbolic headlines claiming otherwise.

Disingenuous media reports and misrepresentations by many politicians have led many Americans to believe President Donald Trump is taking away critical Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for children and those with debilitating disabilities. But nothing could be further from the truth. There are over 36 million individuals receiving SNAP. Of them, fewer than 3 million are categorized as able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) between the ages of 18-49. This new rule prevents states from seeking unlimited waivers for SNAP eligibility for ABAWDs and instead encourages them to reenter the workforce.

The unemployment rate is at a historic 50-year low of 3.5 percent, yet nearly 75 percent of childless, able-bodied adults receiving SNAP benefits are not working at all. These are the very men and women who should be invited to join a booming economy and not be cast aside simply because it’s easier to offer a monthly SNAP allotment rather than undertake the hard work of helping them transition to independence.

This group of capable adults should be encouraged to seek services through the countless employment and education-related services available through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), community partners and other federal and state government programs. This hand-up is the very core of this rule - to ensure states stop requesting waivers and instead start working with recipients to better their station in life.

Over half of states left federal employment and training dollars on the table in 2018, with some states forfeiting more than $1 million. Many states do not allocate additional funding for child care services, and others provide minimal transportation or related services. It is unconscionable that taxpayer funds are being used to keep people on benefits yet not to help them stand on their own two feet. We are a nation of giving, but we do not live in a world of unlimited resources.

Moving individuals from welfare to work posts a return on investment in the form of reduced government spending, allows a reallocation of resources to the truly needy and results in increased tax revenues. It is also a benefit to employers who are introduced to a new pool of potential workers. As these workers mature in their careers, their potential for new skills, savings and other success increases.

Opponents on the left — in Washington and across America — are fine with the status quo. They like to — on repeat — say this important rule violates the will of Congress. But what they do not say is that they were opposed to a pragmatic policy in the 2018 Farm Bill that not only would have encouraged work through a reduction in waiver abuse but also would have reinvested every dollar saved into the very programs that have successfully educated, trained and assisted these individuals in finding and retaining employment. It is easy to demonize the policy when you didn’t think of it yourself.

Despite the intent of the 1996 law, Clinton and Obama-era regulations created egregious arrangements where states could manipulate data sets to waive large swaths of this able-bodied population from even looking for work - even in times of low unemployment and economic growth. The present administration’s rule is very clear: states should not have the ability to haphazardly distribute waivers to individuals who don’t need them.

The media’s rhetoric will have you believe that state flexibility to request waivers has been annihilated. Facts win again because states maintain every right to provide waivers to areas experiencing high unemployment, ensuring that those who don’t have access to jobs will not be punished because of circumstances outside their control.

We must stop choosing a world where success is measured by the number of individuals receiving aid, but rather define progress by how many use the services and support provided to build a better life for themselves and their families.