House farm bill would rein in work requirement waivers gone wild

House farm bill would rein in work requirement waivers gone wild

When it comes to food stamp work requirements, states have made progress in the last few years. In 2015, 42 states were utilizing waivers doled out by the Obama administration that exempted the vast majority of able-bodied childless adults from commonsense work requirements. No work requirement, no training requirement, no time limit — just food stamps forever for adults with no disabilities or dependent kids keeping them from working.

As a result, enrollment in this welfare program ballooned to nearly 48 million late in the Obama era, and able-bodied adult enrollment alone has nearly tripled since 2000.

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Today, things have improved, but only slightly. Despite near-record low unemployment, 33 states are still waiving work requirements statewide or in select areas.

 

The number of waivers still in effect simply doesn’t jive with the booming economy the country is experiencing today. These waivers were meant for tough economic times when jobs are scarce, but even though there are 6.6 million open jobs right now, most able-bodied childless adults on the program aren’t required to work. 

In fact, 35 percent of Americans live in an area with no food stamp work requirements. State data also reveals that just 1.8 million of the nearly 4.7 million able-bodied childless adults on the program in 2018 are subject to these requirements.

How is this happening? States are rigging the system, gerrymandering random counties and geographic areas together to qualify for waivers — even though these areas would not qualify on their own.

Under federal law, states can obtain work waivers in specific areas with high unemployment. But current federal rules allow states to combine counties, cities, and other jurisdictions together to form a single “area” for waiver purposes. The result? States are able to waive work requirements by rigging the numbers and combining unemployment rates of randomly selected areas.

Pennsylvania is one of the worst offenders. By gerrymandering geographic “areas,” the state received federal approval to waive work requirements in the majority of the state, leaving roughly 230,000 able-bodied adults on welfare indefinitely.

The state combined 59 counties — some of which had unemployment rates as low as 3.9 percent — to create one “area” and waive work entirely. Then, the state created “civil divisions”, randomly grouping townships, boroughs, and cities together. Conveniently, despite the fact that some of these areas had unemployment rates as low as 4.17 percent, these new, combined areas qualified for waivers.

In Illinois, the state combined unemployment rates for 101 of its 102 counties in order to qualify for a waiver. According to the state’s own documentation, a dozen counties had average unemployment rates under five percent, which would have disqualified them for waivers if they had been evaluated on their own. But by gerrymandering the counties to create a single “area,” Illinois has been able to exempt 337,000 able-bodied, childless adults from the work requirement. 

And in Georgia, the state combined 66 randomly located counties with various unemployment rates in order to qualify for a waiver. Evans County, for example, is included in the waiver, but had an unemployment rate of just 5.23 percent during the 24-month period cited in the state’s waiver request. It needed at least a 6 percent unemployment rate to qualify on its own. An additional counties 18 in Georgia had average unemployment rates under 5 percent. But, thanks to gerrymandering, work requirements are waived in these 18 counties entirely.

Unfortunately, these are just a few examples of the antics states are using to circumvent work requirements. Many of the 33 states with full or partial work requirement waivers use gerrymandering and a variety of other gimmicks to undermine congressional intent and increase dependency.

Thankfully, the House farm bill currently being debated by Congress (H.R. 2) would begin cracking down on this type of gerrymandering. Specifically, the bill would eliminate states’ ability to combine jurisdictions, requiring each county or city to qualify on their own.

The Manager’s Amendment, filed on Wednesday, would strengthen waiver requirements further, limiting waivers to areas with unemployment rates above 7 percent. 

A new analysis of state and federal data by the Foundation for Government Accountability finds that these two changes would eliminate waivers for roughly 63 percent of the able-bodied, childless adults on food stamps — roughly doubling the number of those who are subject to work requirements.

These are long-overdue, commonsense reforms that will help rein in out-of-control waivers and get able-bodied adults back to work. The food stamp program should serve as a safety net for the truly needy, not as a way of life for individuals who can and should work. By reining in work requirement waivers that have gone wild, the U.S. House is taking an important step in returning the food stamp program to its original intent.

Nic Horton is research director for the Foundation for Government Accountability.