Too many Americans are trapped in failing welfare programs and the problem is getting worse. The number of people dependent on government has exploded in recent years, largely due to state and federal expansions.
This was driven by the misguided conventional wisdom that the best way to reduce poverty is to expand welfare to more people and hope that they would eventually work their way out of dependency. But new research turns that notion upside down.
In 2013, Kansas bucked the welfare-expansion trend and implemented common-sense work requirements and time limits for able-bodied adults without dependents on food stamps. Under the leadership of Governor Sam Brownback, state officials launched the most comprehensive welfare tracking system of its kind to monitor the impact on individuals’ employment and earnings.
The results were remarkable.
With no welfare work requirement or time limit, just one in five able-bodied adults on food stamps worked. Nearly 93 percent of them were in poverty, most in severe poverty.
Since implementing work requirements and time limits, the number of able-bodied adults on food stamps has dropped by 75 percent.
These reforms immediately freed nearly 13,000 Kansans from welfare on December 31, 2013. Nearly 60 percent of those leaving food stamps found employment within 12 months and their incomes rose by an average of 127 percent per year. That higher income more than offset the food stamps they lost, increasing economic activity and bringing in new resources for other state priorities. Better still, the average income among working able-bodied adults is now above the poverty line.
Those still receiving food stamps, but now subject to a work requirement, are also better off. The typical enrollee has significantly increased their employment and incomes, although their incomes are not as high as those freed completely from welfare.
Long-term welfare caused severe damage. The data shows that the less time these able-bodied adults spend on welfare, the quicker they can get back into the workforce once they are freed from welfare and the more money they will make. These Kansans are discovering new lives of independence and self-sufficiency that, in some cases, they haven’t known for more than two decades.
This new evidence provides policymakers with an opportunity to rethink how they approach welfare. Reformers must refocus their anti-poverty efforts on freeing people from welfare completely instead of simply reforming the welfare experience itself. Policymakers across the country should take a page from Kansas, restore the working class, and give real hope to millions trapped in lives of dependency and poverty.