FGA CEO Tarren Bragdon Hosts Call on Food Stamp Work Requirements

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Complete transcript below.

 
Hello this is Tarren Bragdon, I am CEO of the Foundation for Government Accountability. FGA is a think tank based in Naples, Florida but we work in states across the country equipping state leaders, both in the legislative and executive branches with proven strategies to fix failed healthcare and welfare programs. We do this by working hand in hand with you on various solutions to implement in your own state. If you want to learn more about the work that we are doing and some of the different solutions that we are advancing you can visit our website at theFGA.org.

I would like to extend a special welcome to those of you on the call. This is the first call we have done for people specifically in the executive branch and many of you have likely joined us in the past, when we have talked about other welfare reforms and Medicaid or Obamacare. We are working around the country right now on a variety of food stamp or SNAP reforms. We thought that a more targeted call focused on what we are talking about in the next few minutes would be of particular interest to the executive branch.

As an aside, I also want to mention that the foundation is holding its annual health care and welfare solutions conference this October 26th through the 29th and we are going to have a special track and we would like to extend a special invitation to key officials from the governors’ office in your state. You will be getting an invitation from us as well as you can follow up with Josh Archambault our senior fellow his email is Josh@thefga.org. If you have not received an invitation, we have travel scholarships available and would really enjoy getting to see you face to face and also having you work directly with us on health care and welfare solutions.

We are recording this call and will be posting a transcript. How the call will work logistically is we will be having a conversation with our different panelists, and then we will be opening it up for questions, and we will have a questions queue. You will have time to have your specific questions posed to our esteemed panelists after we have a facilitated conversations.

Let’s dig right into the topic of the call. We have four great speakers with us today. First we have Mark Dugan who is the former chief of staff to the Lieutenant Governor of Kansas, health advisor to the administration, and the former campaign manager to Governor Sam Brownback. We also have from Kansas Sandra Timmons, who is the Economic and Employment Services Director for the Kansas Department of Children and Families, and we are joined by Sam Adolphsen who if the Chief Operating Officer for the Maine Health and Human Service. Lastly we have Josh Archambault our Senior Fellow who works on a variety of healthcare and welfare here at the Foundation for Government Accountability.

We will start out first with you Josh. Can your provide some brief historical context for this work requirement and time limits policy change that we are talking about that are facing states right now regarding food stamps?

Josh: Sure thanks Tarren, so when we look back at the last time we did welfare reform in the 1990’s, there was wide bipartisan agreement about work requirements. There is a federal law on the books whether you are aware of it or not, that those that are on food stamps have to be searching for work or meeting this requirement. However the stimulus bill and the Obama administration have really gone out of their way to loosen those eligibility requirements specifically for able-bodied adults without children. We are going to be spending quite a bit of time talking about that. For context, the food stamp program has been one of the single fastest growing welfare programs in America. We are almost up to fifty million Americans. That is up from just seventeen million in 2000. That is a 175% growth. By contrast for folks that might be a little more familiar with TANF or welfare cash assistance, only about four million people nationwide are on the TANF program, so you can see an exponentially larger program when you talk about food stamps.

Tarren: So Josh why have states taken this waiver? Can you explain a little bit about the time requirements or time limit for those folks who are not working?

Josh: Most of the states have quite frankly been on autopilot. The departments have continued to request this waiver for the able-bodied childless adult population. They have applied repeatedly over the past few years. It has never popped up onto the governors desk. It has been infrequently discussed in the legislature, and the issue simply has not risen to the top. Typically, the requirement was that after three months an able-bodied childless adult had to meet the work requirement. They had to be working part time, full-time, volunteering, or doing an educational pursuit. There are a number of different ways they can fulfill that work requirement and as a result of taking this waiver those individuals can stay on the program far past that three month period without having to be work-oriented at all.

Tarren: Who exactly does this work requirement impact?

Josh: Typically it is the able-bodied childless adults, and this is where a significant amount of that food stamp growth has come from. In fact, we have seen an 833% increase in the amount of able-bodied households on this program, so a large portion of that growth on food stamps in general has come from this population. What has been really troubling to us at the foundation as we have been tracking this is that even as the economic downturn which certainly increased overall growth and hence the stimulus bill and why there were changes in eligibility, but even as poverty rates have started to decline after some improvement, the number of people receiving food stamps continues to go up. Since, 2000 for every one job that has been added in the private sector, seven folks have been added to food stamps, which is certainly a recipe for long-term dependence.

Tarren: What is exactly is the process is states want to restore these work requirements and time limits and free able-bodied adults from the food stamp poverty trap?

Josh: We are having this call right not, because in the vast majority of states, you have to tell the federal government by September 1st whether you are going to apply for this waiver or not. We are recommending that folks not apply for that waiver or if they have applied for that waiver take it back, so that your department you can have an opportunity to understand exactly what is the policy decisions that you are making. If you did not go for the work requirement, October 1st the work requirement will kick in and after three months January 1st 2016 individuals would have to decide whether they are going to meet that work requirement, and if they did not, they would cycle off the program.

Tarren: Josh we certainly saw in the last election cycle, there were some headlines about SNAP, food stamp growth, and work requirements in welfare broadly, but it seems like the issue has faded. Where are we right now with how many states have waived this work requirement, and based on what you know, what does it look like the next year will bring?

Josh: As of June of this year, forty four have either a state waiver or a partial waiver, meaning that certain portions geographically in their state did not have a work requirements. However, we have seen a number of governors step forward very recently and decide. Governor Pence in July, Governor Martinez in New Mexico has come forward to say that we are going to reinstate this work requirement. We are going to hear a little bit more from two of those states that were early adopters on this, but we are see about fourteen states that are moving in this direction of having a statewide requirement, but at least five more who have not, who have hinted that they will be doing so but have not come out publicly to do so. Really seeing momentum of folks re-evaluating this policy decision and deciding to have a work requirement.

Tarren: Why is this work requirement so important?

Josh: The reason the foundation cares about and why we are hoping other folks see this importance is that we know that the best way out of poverty is work, so for these able-bodied adults without children to not have them or require them to be work-oriented on the program, we are doing them a disservice. We are certainly doing ourselves a disservice, but let’s say that there were a hundred people on this call.

According to the Census Bureau, if we were all working a federal minimum wage job. Now of course acknowledging different states have different minimum wage levels, but if we were working a full time minimum wage job making $7.25, a single adult, a parent with one child, and a parent with two kids with the aid of the earned income tax credit would all be over the federal poverty line. Only 3%, so only three out of those one hundred would still be under poverty. It is incumbent on us to make sure that they are work-oriented. What has been deeply concerning to us as we have dug into this issue, as we looked into this able-bodied without dependent children population and 75% of them nationally currently report no income. That is certainly a recipe for dependence that I talked about that will have long term impact.

Tarren: What is the strongest predictor if somebody is going to remain in poverty or not?

Josh: The research shows on this it is whether they are working or not, so in other words, from the research if you are able to control for other factors somebody’s age, their sex, their education, their race, their citizenship, immigration status, the region they live and other demographic characteristics, in essence they can overcome these factors by working, and that is really the power that I think many of us across the political spectrum get at the gut level. Unfortunately our public policy is not backing that up.

Tarren: Well let’s go now to the folks on the ground in the states. We are going to talk with folks in Kansas and Maine who were both early adopters of this. First, I want to go to you Mark. Kansas was really a pioneer in restoring these work requirements. Mark, why did Governor Brownback decide to restore the work requirements?

Mark: Thanks Tarren, I appreciate the opportunity to be on the call today. You know Governor Brownback in the first term had a lot of opportunities to improve government after six years of Kathleen Sebelius and two after she left to work on Obamacare at the federal level, so we had a lot of opportunities that she had put in place to improve on things.

We were actually lucky enough to have our department bring this to the governor’s office as an idea for something that again the governor did not realize was occurring. As we have talked to governors offices across the country we have found it’s a consistent theme. Really, we had a lot of opportunities to promote work requirements, to adjust some of our TANF rules as well, but it was part of broader welfare reform proposal that really tried to tamp down the dependency that comes from long term government assistance. The governor often says what we want to do is give people opportunity not a pittance from the government, and so he really focused on welfare reform quite a bit in this first term in office.

Tarren: Mark let’s go back to you with, actually let’s go to Sandra in Kansas can you talk about when you restored these work requirements, what did you see happen with able-bodied adults?

Sandra: We reinstated this in October of 2013, so we set a three month and thirty six month set period, so those three months October, November, and December, then at the end of that the able-bodied without kids would have lapse if they did not meet the work requirements. At that point, the case load dropped 22,407 persons. Now to give you an idea of how that might compare to your state, at that time we had 315,000 clients on the system, and then it dropped to 292,688 or about 7%. Since then, in October 2014, we have averaged about 1,500 closures and denials each month in 2014 and now in 2015 we are averaging about 1,000 closures or denials for this reason, that the able-bodied adults without dependents are not meeting the requirements.

Tarren: Sam can you talk about what you have seen Maine? Both why you have restored the work requirement and what the impact has been?

Sam: All right, thanks for me having. Our story in Maine is a lot the same as the story in Kansas. We had a governor, Governor LePage who came in after decades of unintentional efforts to grow welfare in the state and he really focused on a hand up instead of a hand out and really putting work first as the problem was solving poverty as opposed to benefit. We have taken that approach in all our programs, and once we realized I think later than we should have that this particular waiver was an option, we moved quickly on it last fall.

Our priority as a department is really to focus on the elderly and disabled and so we are asking across all our programs people who are able-bodied, who are able to go out there and get job. We are asking them to do that. That was really the focus in why we moved in this direction, and the results we have seen have been similar to Kansas we had about 12,000 in our population the work requirement applied to. The waiver expired at the end of 2014, so we had 12,000 currently our population is 2,400. We have dropped about 10,000 from that case load. It was a big contributing factor in 2014 Maine was number one in the country in food stamp enrollment decline, and that certainly was a big component of that.

Tarren: I know we have gotten a lot of questions as we talked to folks in other states about enforcement of this work requirement. Can both first Sandra then Sam, can you talk about how you know folks are meeting the work requirement, and a bit about how the enforcement works. First, Sandra in Kansas.

Sandra: Thank you. Our eligibility is verified at the initial client application when the client applies, but also at the review. Basically a reapplication and at the six month check-in, we have interim reviews at six months. Our staff, our case managers verify that the client is either working or they are meeting the training requirements. The verification employment which we would be doing anyway to help determine the amount they might be eligible will ask for the most recent thirty days worth of pay. We also have interfaces with the works member, and we also have an interface with our own Department of Labor which lets us know quarterly wages. The employment or the training pieces that we ask for the client to provide verification enrollment or we will contact that program, since we do have a business process management model we may do a [inaudible 00:32:50] call when the client is in the office and just verify right then.

Tarren: And Sam how does it work in Maine, and can you talk a bit about the cost of the administration of this work requirement?

Sam: Yeah, so we have the same process in Maine that you just heard about in Kansas. It basically, eligibility checks that we do with that population anyway to verify income household and those kind of things. There is an added one in this, which is show us what work you have done what volunteering you have done, or what job training you have that is counted added to your hours, and that information comes in from the client through the process. For us, there was some work up front that was additional for our eligibility staff. W did have that already built into the system, because before the waivers existed we had to do the work requirements. That technology was already there it was simply a matter of training our staff, making sure they were clear on what counts as work, what kind of documentation needs to be submitted?

There were questions from the legislature and opponents, people who did not want to see this go forward about the administrative time that it would take, and what we find is that while there is a little bit of work up front in terms of getting staffed trained back up, the decline case load is balancing, and so for us it really has been a neutral in terms of the total work load. It is really a matter of the training for the staff. I would add just on that point that any of the difficulty we have is all related to the complexity in the federal regulations which is something that we have often experience in the program as you all know well.

Tarren: Sandra, are you seeing a similar dynamic with the cost of the administration of the work requirement?

Sandra: Yes, we had similar experiences. Although there was a little initial work at first when we had that many clients that we were checking on to see if they had an exemption reason. There were no additional staff hires. This is work that staff were doing anyway. They were processing anyway, and actually in my opinion, a statewide waiver is less error prone than a partial county waiver or even some waivers have been by zip code, because staff then have to remember what part of the state or what part of their city has requirements and does not have the requirements. Similarly with the training we used in house trainers. Trainers that already existed and the IT was the same way, because waivers had been around a long time. It was already in our legacy system, and we actually had already designed it, and the new eligibility system, because we knew this was a policy that existed, so there are no additional costs in that.

Tarren: Sandra I think you brought up a really good point with the statewide waiver versus the partial waive, and I am curious Sam what was your thinking or the government’s thinking with deciding to do a statewide waiver, and then also be curious Mark from your perspective about how that played, so first Sam can you talk about statewide versus partial, because I know a lot of the states on the calls are going through the same thought process.

Sam: Sure, we looked across the whole state at the employment rates and the volunteer opportunities that existed and we made a determination that even in the more rural counties that slightly higher unemployment, really the bottom line is that we need people to go out and try. We need to go out and look for work, find work. We are talking about twenty four volunteer hours a month. We found thousands and thousands of volunteer opportunities in the state, and so for us it was really a clear choice that we wanted this to be consistent across the state.

I think one of the other things that came up in many of the discussions, if folks were having difficulty finding. They may need to relocate, and they may need to go to a part of the state that has jobs, so we are not necessarily the ones who need to make sure that everybody stays right where they are. What we do want to do is make sure able-bodied people are looking for and finding work, so the result has been really fascinating in our data what we have found is that in the areas that have really high unemployment people are finding work. They are finding volunteer opportunities and they are able to comply with the requirements of the program at a higher rate than our counties that have a lower unemployment. Really the whole argument about the fact that you need this waiver in areas of higher unemployment, it is just not bearing in the data at all.

Tarren: Mark, what was the thought in consideration in Kansas on statewide versus partial waivers?

Mark: Yeah, so when the governor came into office Kansas had significantly higher eligibility for those programs including TANF and other welfare programs or Medicaid programs, than Missouri and Oklahoma. We have a lot of feedback from border counties and border communities that folks were really coming into the state to access those services. They were not … and the folks who had lived there for thirty years had no idea who these people were coming into their communities. Oftentimes crime and other issues followed them. When we made the other changes, it was always statewide, and we saw the benefits of that prior to doing the SNAP, the able-bodied waiver non-renewal, and so really for it was kind of a no brainer.

The governor often says, you should for people to act economically rational, and if it is more economically rational to live in a place where you get free stuff, you are likely to live there. Folks will seek out those benefits, and so really for the governor it always made sense to do programs and to do these reforms statewide. Sandra I don’t know if you have anything to add in terms of the effects that you guys have seen at the agency level.

Sandra: Not really, I would just add that Kansas probably had a little different experience that actually some of our rural areas, our unemployment rate was actually lower than in the urban areas, and they were actually actively recruiting for jobs offering to pay for people to relocate and then a success story where we partnered with some major industries, because they were having such a hard time hiring.

Tarren: I think that is a really interesting point Sandra, because as Sam mentioned I think there is a certain perception about high unemployment versus low unemployment in counties and the work requirement would somehow be worse than a high unemployment counties, and also there is also, in rural areas it may be harder for people to find jobs, so it is fascinating that both of you have had expereinces that go directly against those myths of why a state might not want to restore work requirements or why it might want to exempt certain rural or high unemployment counties.

Mark: Yeah and I would just like to add.

Tarren: Please go ahead.

Mark: Sorry to jump in, I just wanted to add another one of the key points in our decision is we talked to businesses and when we talk to businesses in those rural counties with the higher unemployment, they told us that every time they had jobs open and that they could not get people to take them, and that really weighed in on the decision with the commissioner here and the governor, that there were jobs there for these folks. They just needed to go out and get them.

Tarren: Well my last question before we open it up to the states on the call, just to recap. We heard a justification for going with a statewide waiver versus a partial, statewide restoring work requirements rather than just a partial. We heard about the experience with 80% reduction in the number of able-bodied adults on food stamps. Two thirds reduction in Kansas, and then also people were able to go to work or participate by volunteering at a higher rate or in high unemployment areas based on the experience within your own state. We have heard I think a lot of facts about why this has been good policy in your state, so let’s talk about the politics of it, because this is all operating in a political environment as well. What are the residents of your state think about this policy change and how has it been received?
Mark can you give us a sense of how this has played out politically in Kansas?

Mark: Sure, you know we were I think as most folks know in a pretty tough campaign in 2014. I had the good fortune to be the campaign manager through that pretty stressful effort. What we saw consistently, we had a big robust session about our tax program, our tax reform. We had a big robust discussion about education spending. One of the areas where we consistently saw support for what the governor had done was on welfare reform. As we worked to close the campaign, we had several options of some TV spots that we considered running.

We ran a pretty tough ad, contrast ad as our second to last spot, and we did a focus group on three or four options of a close ad. By far the winner, particularly among undecideds and among women was an ad that highlighted our welfare reform, our work requirements, and specifically that our opponent who was the minority leader in the Kansas house had opposed the governor’s position on work requirements. I think Governor LePaige’s staff will probably echo this. The press might not be crazy about it, and the democrats will likely criticize it when you first do it. When the bill comes to the floor, most of them are likely to vote for it, because even they understand that reinstating the Clinton work requirements is going to be good politics back home, so our experience has been this is both good policy and good politics.


Tarren:
Sam?

Sam: We have about the same experience here in Maine. Governor LePaige had a election in 2014 and this took October about a month before the election. It was highly visible in the media, and I have to say with all the various reforms that have been done over the last couple of years, I think this one is probably been the most popular. We get feedback all the time, positive feedback from people. I think it is easy to understand in a highly visible program that if somebody is able to work and they are receiving a benefit it is reasonable to ask them to chip in and do something. Governor LePaige in a tough race gets the most votes ever in the history of Maine governor, and really resounding. This has been consistently with various informal and formal polls and eighty twenty issue in Maine.

Tarren: Well let’s open it up to questions for the folks from the various states who are on the call. We are going to Q and A mode. If you have a question, you just simply press star five to get into the questions queue. If folks have a question … Or you can go forward. You can actually just go forward and ask a question if you have a question.

Any questions at all for our panelists?

David: Hello?

Tarren: Go ahead with your question.

David: Hi this is David in Governor Nikki Haley’s office in South Carolina. The question I have is if you do not seek a waiver, so the one of the concerns we have heard is that the work requirements are not real stringent under the federal requirements. If you do not seek a waiver, if you want to make … Let me see if you want to approve work requirements on your own at the state level, you cannot do that or it is or difficult if you do not first seek a waiver. Basically once you are under the federal law that controls, that we cannot bolster the work requirements.

Sam: Yeah this is-

Sandra: Go ahead.

Sam: Yeah I would just say I think you can probably ask for different things in the waiver, but whether or not they would be granted anyway is the questions. You know twenty hours a week for work requirement I think is in line with what you see in the other programs. I am sure that it is as strict as we want it. I think the volunteering is very loose. You are talking about twenty four hours in a month, so you are on to something there, but for us it was … Those requirements are better than none, which is what we had and we just thought it was best to do what was immediately in our control, which is do not seek the labor. Rather than something might have to go to our legislature, which has been known to not to act on any of this. That has been proven true again. If you are in a different situation with your legislature, and you think there is some real strong momentum there maybe that is a good path, but for us, it was really just seizing the reins. Doing that we could do positively, then moving forward.

Sandra: This is Sandra from Kansas I was just going to add. We really did not take on any other work requirements that financially needed more funding. We used existing resources. We collaborated with our Department of Labor. The clients that were interested in working, sent them to the one stop shop which would be available to them any way to look for work. Same thing with the training we took a very … stringent may not be the right word, but literally took what the federal government, USDA said would work as a training program. For example those under the Trade Adjustment Act, and our own employment and training. This did not develop at that time any additional work programs that required different funding, so basically the clients found a training program. They were available statewide anyway to anyone, then as they began working reported to us.

Tarren: I would just add from the Foundation’s perspective. We are focused on what are policies that free people from the welfare trap and move them out of poverty, and if you have a policy, a work requirement even at its most basis level that gets people back to work particularly as we heard in rural or high unemployment areas and reduces the number of people who dependent upon the government by 65 or 80%. I think that is a vast improvement. Certainly there could be incremental progress beyond that, I would hate to have the perfect be a goal that might be unattainable particularly with this administration federally, when you could get really close to freeing thousands of your citizens from poverty. That is why we are focused on this as a critical next step for states.

David: Thank you.

Tarren: Are there other questions? Ok, let’s go to, first to Josh can you in closing provide some context of where states are at and the time frame? Then we will go to Mark, Sandra, and Sam for some final thoughts as well.

Josh: Yeah sure. Thanks Tarren, so as I mentioned September 1st is a really important date, but certainly is an issue that does not disappear on September 1st. It is an opportunity for you to continue to engage on the issue that we have seen states pull out of their waiver requirements. If your state has already submitted a waiver request, it is still possible to rescind that. I would say as we have this important discussion about partial versus statewide waivers, there is a slight cautionary tale in Ohio. When they moved to a partial waiver, there was a lawsuit along racial lines. Not to imply that if you are a partial state that will certainly be case, but it is something to be aware of.

I think there are other public policies considerations as well, many of which we have hit on in this call, but this is really a very popular policy change. We talked a little bit about the polling, not only in these states but nationally.

This is an issue that truly is bipartisan, and FGA actually polled enrollees of the program to ask whether they supported the changes for work requirements, and we actually asked them about even stronger work requirements, than what the federal law is. Of those that we have polled, over 50% of folks that currently on the program support it. Almost 70% of individuals that had been on the program in the past and are currently working support it. Really this reform crosses income lines, and crosses political lines. Something very popular and it certainly something your boss can make as a great messaging point as you are coming out of the summer and into the fall.

Tarren: Sam closing thoughts on the experience in Maine and suggestions to other states considering a similar move?

Sam: Yeah, thanks for having me on the call. I appreciate it. I would encourage other states to act on this. It has really been for us a positive all the way around. It is an area that I think people feel really strongly about. It allows you to put the focus back on getting people to work. Prioritizing your resources for the truly needy, the elderly, the disabled in your programs. I think for us too it has been a great anti-fraud effort. We have found that this particular population has a propensity to show up in different areas of welfare fraud and even other criminal activities like drugs. This has been really key for us on the fraud front too. I think there are a lot of great reasons to do it, and there is a lot of help here for the people that are trapped in this program. I would be happy to offer Maine as a resource as well. If anyone wants to talk about the technical aspects of it, we can connect you with program people, and hopefully help you out if you choose to go this direction.

Tarren: Mark, and then Sandra.

Mark: Well, thanks for everybody for joining. I spoke with the governor’s policy director and he reminded me before the call and reminded me to point out why we are having this conversation. The reason we are having this conversation is because the left has failed when it comes to welfare. We have spent, and the Governor talks about this. We have spent billions and billions of dollars attempting to do these kinds of programs over the last forty and sixty years, and it has absolutely failed. It is absolutely important that governors take the lead on these issues and really, this is one of those issues that the public supports us on, and we can really manage the debate on this and can really make a difference in a lot of people’s lives. I would encourage you, our program folks in Kansas are available to be helpful. Our political folks are available to be helpful, and FGA is certainly a tremendous asset as we have these conversation around welfare reform and other health issues. Thanks again and I appreciate your time.

Sandra: Well I don’t know if I can top that. I did want to mention that Kansas actually that last round of waivers would not have been eligible for a traditional waiver. That is the type of waiver that is based on having a labor surplus in your area. The state would only have been eligible by looking back a twelve month period, so your state maybe in similar situations. It is only because of some of the stimulus bill rules that they would still be eligible for that. Of course we always love the anecdotal stories, but I have to tell you this story.

One of our directors was in our local service center and they were having a jobs fair for our TANF clients that day, and there is a lot of great activities and a lot of great employers there. Some of the SNAP clients came up and they said, hey can we go in here and look for jobs? Well of course this was for TANF funded by TANF, and so I think when your SNAP clients are coming up and saying please can you help me get a job, that it really makes an impact on you. Again, we will be glad to answer any questions or offer any assistance we can. Thank you.

Tarren: I just want to thank everybody from the Foundation for Government Accountability’s perspective this reform is about saving taxpayer resources for the truly needy and getting folks back to work. We heard on the call about how this change is good policy and good politics, and it partners with able-bodied adults with no kids to get them to be work-oriented. For us that is really key, because it is about ending dependency for so many. Giving a shot in the arm to your local economy, increasing your tax revenue, and freeing – ultimately millions of Americans from poverty, and giving the hope of a better life. I appreciate your time and consideration. We will be sending around everybody’s contact information who was on the call. If you have specific follow up questions, as well as we will be posting a transcript of this call and you can find other information about food stamps reforms and welfare reforms at TheFGA.org.

Thank you again for your participation.