How to Fix the Food Stamp Crisis: Work Requirements

Customer buying food at supermarket and making check out with cashdesk worker in store

There is a crisis in America – a crisis of dependency, and it’s growing.

More than 48 million Americans were enrolled in the food stamp program in 2013, a record high. It is now one of the fastest-growing welfare entitlements in our federal budget, and one of the largest.

A new report by FGA illustrates just how bad it has become.

As Jonathan Ingram and Nic Horton found, “Skyrocketing enrollment has led spending on food stamps to more than quadruple since 2000, reaching a record-high of nearly $80 billion in 2013.” Eighty billion dollars in one year alone. Why is this program growing at such an exponential rate?

One key cause of this out-of-control spending is the recent explosion in enrollment among able-bodied childless adults. Although federal law requires these adults to work in order to receive food stamps, the Obama administration has awarded an unprecedented number of waivers to states, allowing able-bodied childless adults to receive taxpayer-funded food stamp benefits without working at all.

This is more of the same problem that we have seen with expanded Medicaid under ObamaCare. By adding able-bodied childless adults to federal welfare programs, Washington is siphoning away resources from those who need them most and giving those resources to those who have other options. And the problem is running rampant throughout the states.

By 2013, 40 states had full work waivers, while 6 had partial waivers.

With so many states waiving work requirements, it should come as no surprise that few able-bodied childless adults receiving food stamps actually work. In 2013, just one-quarter of childless adult households receiving food stamps had any earned income. The remaining three-quarters had no earned income, meaning they were not working at all

Policies like this result in “more people remaining trapped in government dependency for far longer than they otherwise would.” It has kept people from moving out of poverty, slowed economic growth, “and has contributed to the massive expansion of the welfare state that is sure to become a legacy of the Obama administration.”

As the report illustrates, enforcing work requirements for able-bodied, childless adults on the food stamps program “has proven profoundly successful in decreasing food stamp enrollment, returning more people to work, and even increasing charitable volunteerism.” It’s pretty simple: working full-time raises most able-bodied adults out of poverty, so if states institute work requirements, it will help many of these people get off of government dependency.

And there is an example that states can follow. Maine.

Maine’s Governor, Paul LePage, bucked the national trend and declined the work requirement waiver that his state had received each year since 2008. The results are compelling.

The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) tells the AP that the number of people in Maine on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has dropped even more than Gov. LePage’s administration expected. At the end of 2014, Maine had around 12,000 able-bodied, childless adults on the program. By the end of March 2015, that number had shrunk to 2,680.

That’s 9,000 people moving toward prosperity and away from government dependence..

The press often attacks these statistics as people “losing food stamps,” but policies that move people toward work shouldn’t be viewed as a negative.. It is something we should celebrate.

These are people who were once relying on the government to feed themselves and their families and now, thanks to bold reforms, are becoming more independent. As a society, we should be championing such reforms and celebrating these success stories of people moving forward.

Embracing a work requirement is particularly important right now, in this economy, in our government’s current fiscal state. These able-bodied, childless adults are staying on food stamps longer than ever. This keeps them out of the workforce, stuck in poverty, and isolates them from economic opportunity.

Twenty-five years ago, millions of Americans moved from dependence to dignity under new welfare reforms.

Moving welfare recipients to full-time work has a long history of success. The work-first welfare reforms of the 1990s moved millions of welfare recipients into the labor force, spurring greater economic growth. Welfare caseloads plummeted, employment rose, and poverty rates dropped, particularly among the most at-risk populations.

Reinstituting these work requirements and the benefits that come from them doesn’t require complicated or difficult legislative action in state houses across the country. Governors simply need to decline to renew the work waivers they have been granted under the Obama administration.

At FGA, we believe in empowering individuals. By encouraging Americans to move from dependence to work, states can help rebuild America’s working class, lessen the burden of welfare programs on their budgets, and help lift millions of Americans out of poverty.

Follow Kristina and The FGA on Twitter.