Work requirements for welfare are empowering

Work requirements for welfare are empowering
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The food stamp program is intended to help people who temporarily can’t help themselves, and federal law calls upon able-bodied adults without children to work in exchange for their welfare. Yet, as is the case with many other federal programs, reality doesn’t always align with intentions or expectations.

The truth is that two in five able-bodied adults who receive food stamps will remain on them for more than eight years. Most able-bodied adults in the program don’t work at all, in part because much of the country has been exempted from meaningful work requirements through waivers and carve outs.

The federal law establishing “work for welfare” in the food stamp program been twisted from its 1996 roots into something very different. The rules in place today — promulgated primarily by Clinton- and Obama-era bureaucrats — end up being a trap for state lawmakers as well as those receiving benefits.


States have incentives to apply for broad-based waivers that remove the requirement that able-bodied adults without kids work, train or volunteer 20 hours a week. Too many state officials are happy to perform less oversight in checking compliance with a work requirement, while dependency lobbies are happy to keep more government subsidies flowing.

But the end result for individuals and families is far from ideal. Waiving the work requirement has contributed to record food stamp enrollment, and less time on the job. And being in the workforce and getting a job is necessary for boosting one’s lifetime earnings and getting a shot at upward mobility.

We know from experience that when states restore work requirements, people spend less time on welfare and go back to work sooner. They don’t just go to work in low-wage jobs, finding employment in more than 600 industries, including construction, manufacturing, and nursing.

It’s time the federal government give states better incentives that will encourage able-bodied people to reenter the job market. And there is no better time than right now — when there are six million open jobs across America — to refocus the conversation on work.

Consider Michigan. The economy is doing well and is at full employment — the level at which nearly everyone who wants a job may find one. The state’s Pure Michigan Job Connect website has nearly 105,000 openings posted, and many more are available in nearby Great Lakes states, which created approximately 15,000 new jobs in just the past few months. Some areas in the state even have labor shortages.

Yet Michigan has sought and received permission to waive food stamp work requirements in 69 of its 83 counties – many of which are doing just fine. A quarter of the work-waived counties match or dip under the state’s overall unemployment rate. One county with a waiver even has an unemployment rate of 3.6 percent. To top it all off, the data that Michigan used to secure a waiver is from three years ago, when economic conditions were quite different.

What’s highlighted here is not Michigander malfeasance: Michigan, after all, has simply played by the rules. It requested a waiver, as permitted, cherry-picked the data — again, as allowed —and then received an exemption it does not actually need. In fact, the state seems to have finally recognized the truth and recently announced the phasing out of such waivers in at least ten counties.

Rather, what this situation reveals is that faulty rules that have allowed Michigan and many others states to perpetuate dependency. It’s time that Washington improved the laws and regulations to gives states incentives to emphasize what works, which is work itself.

Work is one of the most powerful forces for self-betterment. Work is more than just a source of income. It’s a pathway to independence, dignity and respect. Americans intuitively understand this, and that’s why nine out of ten voters support sensible work requirements in welfare programs. The only question remaining is whether Congress and the executive branch will make federal programs line up with what the country wants and needs.

Lindsay Boyd Killen is vice president for strategic outreach and communications at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Kristina Rasmussen is vice president for federal affairs at the Foundation for Government Accountability.