Work requirements are social safety net's bridge to dignity
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America’s economy is still surging along.

The unemployment rate has fallen to 3.5 percent, a level not achieved in 50 years. Wages are rising at an annual rate of 3.1 percent and the average hourly earnings for production and non-supervisory workers are growing even faster at 3.7 percent. There are more than 7 million job openings in the United States – 1.2 million more than there are unemployed persons.

Despite this prosperity, there are still too many people who face barriers to tapping into their unique gifts and talents. Welfare programs that may have been well intentioned often have the perverse effect of telling people experiencing poverty that they should not reap the benefits of employment, but should be dependent on government for their basic needs. Instead of rewarding hard work and initiative, cycles of poverty get perpetuated.

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In a step that could help correct part of this inequity, the Department of Agriculture recently finalized a rule to restore the intent of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, or Food Stamp, program, to be a bridge from dependency to the dignity of work. The goal is to help people free themselves from poverty, rather than simply make poverty more bearable.

The Food Stamp law includes a common-sense requirement that able-bodied adults without dependents must work or be preparing for work to qualify for benefits for more than three months. There are multiple ways to satisfy the requirement -- working (including just part time), looking for work, or enrolling in a training program.

Enforcing work requirements is popular, with 82 percent of Americans supporting them in a recent poll. More importantly, it is the right thing to do for those experiencing poverty. Studies in Arkansas, Kansas, Mississippi, and Maine all showed that that when work requirements are enforced, the number of able-bodied adults on the welfare rolls falls, time on welfare is reduced, people reenter the workforce, and incomes increase. Most importantly, dependency decreases and people have greater opportunity to realize success.

But millions of able-bodied adults remain on the welfare rolls despite not satisfying the work requirement, a result of loopholes that allow states to request a waiver of the work requirement for an area that has an unemployment rate above 10 percent or “does not have a sufficient number of jobs to provide employment.”

Thirty-six states and territories have waived the work requirements in all or parts of their states. These waivers serve as a barrier to food stamp recipients who could otherwise be reentering the workforce or taking advantage of job-training services to enjoy the benefits of this growing economy, beginning a path to self-sufficiency. Providing benefits for able-bodied adults without requiring work is a perverse incentive that sends the signal to those experiencing poverty that they should not tap into their gifts and talents to succeed, but that they should become dependent on welfare.

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Despite the progress this rule represents, there is still work to be done.

For starters, it would be better if these changes were spelled out in law rather than the regulatory process. Congress and the president should work to strengthen the work requirements in food stamps and other welfare programs; there is no need to wait until the next farm bill to do so. The administration should also work to strengthen the program by eliminating other regulatory loopholes.

At the state level, governors should understand they are now accountable for the implementation of the work requirements in their states. They should recognize that welfare must serve as a safety net and a bridge to dignity through work. They should follow the examples of other leaders who have taken this responsibility seriously, such as Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who this year ended Alaska’s statewide work requirement waiver.

These efforts to improve the nation’s welfare programs, enabling pathways for people to realize earned success, should be celebrated.

Matthew D. Dickerson is a policy manager at Americans for Prosperity.