Let's encourage self-sufficiency by reforming our safety net

December 5, 2019

When welfare reform first inserted work requirements into our welfare system in 1996, some on the Left predicted doom for America’s most vulnerable families. New York Democratic Sen. Patrick Moynihan predicted that we would “find children sleeping on grates, picked up in the morning frozen.” New Jersey Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg said that we would see “children begging for money, children begging for food, 8- and 9-year-old prostitutes.” And Massachussets Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy called the bill “legislative child abuse.”

Fortunately, none of those hysterical prognostications came true. Between 1996 and 2000, single-mother welfare caseloads fell by 53%, their employment rate increased by 10 percentage points, and their poverty rate fell by 10%. And the consumption-based poverty rate among single-parent families has continued to fall since then — from 23% in 1995, to 15% in 2000, to 9% in 2010.

It goes to show that we can be compassionate and smart at the same time. Our welfare programs need to provide a hand up, not a handout. We must pair government assistance with the tools for work-capable individuals to achieve self-sufficiency.

Unfortunately, previous administrations have created loopholes in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps, that undermined the work requirements at the heart of welfare reform.

The number of SNAP recipients used to rise during recessions and then quickly fall as the economy recovered. But due to eligibility loopholes instituted under President Barack Obama, that didn’t happen after the most recent recession. A full ten years after the recession ended in 2009, the share of the U.S. population receiving SNAP is 40% higher now than when the recession began in 2007.

There are an estimated 1.3 million jobs currently open in our thriving economy. We, as a nation, can and should do better in moving more Americans to self-sufficiency.

To that end, the Trump administration finalized a new regulation this Wednesday designed to close one of the largest loopholes some states are using to undermine welfare reform.

Under current regulations, states can request full or partial waivers from work requirements if they can show that an area has an unemployment rate of 10% or a rate 20% higher than the national average. In 2018, five states and the District of Columbia used this loophole to avoid work requirements, and as a result, 44% of able-bodied adults without dependents lived in an area in which the work requirements were not in effect.

Work requirements have a proven record of success in moving people from welfare to self-sufficiency. In 2015, Maine began enforcing work requirements for food stamps despite partial waiver eligibility. It saw an 80% drop in its work-capable caseload in just three months. Thirteen counties in Alabama saw similar results when they implemented work requirements for food stamps in 2017.

Additionally, the Joint Economic Committee’s Social Capital Project has found that work is a critical source of social capital for struggling communities. Many individuals consider work “a source of meaning and purpose, belonging, pride, friendship, and community.”

The Trump administration has taken laudable steps to improve work in SNAP, but Congress should be doing more. That is why I will reintroduce the Welfare Reform and Upward Mobility Act this Congress, which will make changes to the law to strengthen work and protect the integrity of our safety net. I hope that my colleagues will join me in pursuing the goal of getting more Americans off of the sidelines and back to work.

Op-Ed originally published by the Washington Examiner