Making Welfare Work Again

The Welfare Reform and Upward Mobility Act would transform incentives.

May 26, 2016

The key to understanding America’s social-welfare system today — and why it needs to be reformed — is not its bloated annual budget but its tendency to undermine the two most dependable routes out of poverty: work and marriage.

For many Americans struggling to make ends meet, our safety net works as it was intended, providing a temporary lifeline when they fall on hard times and need help getting back on their feet.

But for millions more living in or on the edge of poverty, our welfare state functions more like a Faustian bargain. The needy receive the resources for life’s basic necessities, but only so long as they refrain from taking positive steps — such as getting a job and getting married — toward self-sufficiency.

The surest way to improve one’s lot in life is through hard work. And we know from a mountain of social-science research — confirming millennia of experience and intuition — that the stability and support engendered by marriage improves the economic outlook not only of adults, but also their kids.

Indeed, growing up with two married parents is the strongest predictor of upward mobility for lower-income children. Yet our welfare programs penalize marriage by reducing — and often eliminating altogether — a couple’s combined benefits after they get married.

The current welfare system also punishes work. Beneficiaries face benefit “cliffs” as their incomes rise, either from finding a job or getting a raise, and only two of the more than 80 means-tested programs require able-bodied adults to work in order to receive aid.

For those who need public assistance the economic incentives are clear: The best way to maximize benefits is to avoid marriage and full-time work.

So it was predictable that government spending on welfare programs would balloon over the decades, eventually reaching approximately $1 trillion this year — a staggering sum that nonetheless pales in comparison to the social and human costs of our broken welfare system.

The real problem with our welfare system isn’t that it’s expensive or ineffective, but that it is culturally and spiritually debilitating — leaving the very people it purports to help estranged from the only influences that are capable of fostering upward mobility.

So welfare reform, properly understood, is as much a moral imperative as it is an economic necessity. Yes, we want a more affordable welfare system, but we also want inspired, self-reliant citizens, capable of leading productive and happy lives.

We believe the American people deserve both. The Welfare Reform and Upward Mobility Act repairs the crucial link between effort and reward in the federal food-stamp program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

With an annual budget of more than $80 billion and caseload of 46.5 million Americans, SNAP is the nation’s second largest means-tested welfare program. It is also one of the fastest growing, especially among able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs): work-capable adults between the ages of 18 and 49 who do not have children or other dependents to support.

The growth in the ABAWD food-stamp caseload — from 1.9 million in 2008 to 4.7 million in 2014 — has been driven largely by President Obama’s decision to grant work-requirement waivers to the states, so that most ABAWDs today are not required to engage in any sort of constructive activity in order to receive food stamps. This would change under our bill.

Modeled after Maine’s recent successful reforms, the Welfare Reform and Upward Mobility Act includes a monthly 80-hour work requirement for all ABAWD food-stamp recipients and creates work-activation programs that provide beneficiaries with vocational education, job training, community-service opportunities, job-search assistance, and other resources to promote self-sufficiency.

There is still much work to be done to ensure that our welfare system strengthens, rather than undermines, work and marriage. But this bill is a critical first step. And like all future reforms, it will succeed by making poverty not tolerable, but temporary.

Op-ed originally published by the National Review