Welfare is failing, just not for the reason you think.

For too long, conventional wisdom in Washington, D.C., has dictated the best way to move people out of poverty is to expand welfare programs so that individuals could possibly, gradually, work their way out of dependency.

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Kansas’ recent reform experience turns that notion upside down.

It is now clear that welfare fails because it ensnares people in poverty by paying them to not work. Welfare fails because it discourages people from improving their lives. So many recipients don’t work and get caught on welfare, suffering in poverty for years…even generations.

Fortunately, there’s a proven way to help.

Kansas shows what’s possible when you free people from the welfare trap. With assistance from the Foundation for Government Accountability, Kansas just completed the most comprehensive welfare tracking project of its kind. We matched more than 41,000 individuals as they moved off welfare with their employment records at the state's Department of Labor.

The situation: After the Obama administration waived work requirements for welfare, able-bodied adults in their working prime signed up for welfare (food stamps) in record numbers and received nearly $200 each and every month, even if they didn’t work. As a result, only one in five did any work at all. Almost all were in severe poverty.

The reform: Restore work requirements and time limits for work-ready adults on food stamps. These two simple changes reduced the welfare rolls in this category by 75 percent, with nearly 13,000 leaving in just a few months.

The result: Americans freed from welfare don’t just find a way to survive, they thrive.

When moved off food stamps, half of these Kansans began working immediately. Nearly three-fifths were employed within 12 months and their incomes rose by an average of 127 percent during that first year. Incomes kept increasing as they progressed to full-time work and increased their wages. Better still, those higher wages more than offset the food stamps lost, making them more financially secure. This is real success!

Kansas’ simple reforms have led to more employment, higher incomes, less poverty, and lower spending.

Even those still on food stamps (but now required to work to keep them) are twice as likely to be working and have also substantially increased their incomes, though their overall incomes are still not as high as those freed completely from welfare. The result is that these individuals now need less help and their average time on food stamps is cut in half.

Not only could we see the big statistical picture, but we found powerful, real-life examples in our data, like a [MW1] man living near Kansas City who was one of the first people to return to work when we implemented the reform.

He signed up for food stamps in early 2009, just as the Great Recession was taking its toll. While the economy was improving, his life stagnated. He languished on food stamps for almost five years. He had no earned income with seemingly a lifetime in poverty ahead. His story is all too common in today’s failing welfare systems. But within three months after being moved off food stamps, he worked his way out of poverty. Now, he’s working in publishing earning $45,000 with a bright future ahead.

People like this man are building a stronger Kansas. These adults freed from welfare have found diverse work. They’ve found their place caring for patients with disabilities, crafting products in factories, delivering the energy that drives our nation, and baking the bread that warms our tables.

Kansas’ reforms save taxpayers nearly $50 million annually. Instead of draining taxpayers, these able-bodied adults are now productive members of their communities and adding tens of millions of dollars to the local economy. They are providing up to $4.4 million in new state tax revenue and another $1 million for local governments giving more resources to fund cops, kids and roads.

So, what does this all mean?

We need to focus on freeing people from welfare completely, instead of simply tinkering with the welfare experience.

For too long, Washington, D.C. has encouraged states to extend food stamps and expand Medicaid to ever more able-bodied adults. They promised welfare as an economic stimulus and states – red and blue alike –bought it. The result is not stimulus, but malaise.

People on welfare are working less, earning less and as a result are trapped in poverty. Millions of them. It's a national tragedy.

Fortunately, states have many reform tools to roll back what has become the gateway to dependency: food stamps. States can assist their citizens by restoring work requirements, time limits, asset tests, reducing eligibility loopholes, and eliminating fraud.

Once free, those previously dependent on the government are motivated to work and earn more than just money: they gain self-worth, dignity, and a hopeful future. All things a person can't get from welfare.

Americans know the value of hard work. That’s why common-sense work requirements were core to the bipartisan 1996 welfare reform that turns 20 this year.

Now is the perfect time for Congress to expand work requirements and time limits for non-disabled adults on all welfare programs – including Medicaid, ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion, food stamps, and housing. It’s time to start holding states to asset tests for all welfare programs. It’s time to return welfare to the truly needy and stop trapping Americans in government dependency.

With these reforms, Congress can help restore the working class and give real hope to millions still trapped in poverty and a failing welfare system.


Brownback is governor of Kansas and Bragdon is the CEO of Foundation for Government Accountability