By Nic Horton, Jonathan Ingram and Josh Archambault
Over the last several years, even as the economy has started to improve, more and more Americans have become trapped in the food stamp program, now called the “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program” or SNAP. In 2013, food stamp enrollment and spending hit all-time highs.
But a new report from the Foundation for Government Accountability provides governors and legislators with a roadmap to reverse this trend. The first step: getting able-bodied adults work-oriented and eventually off of welfare.
Able-Bodied Childless Adults Drive Food Stamp Explosion
So what’s causing the rise in food stamp dependency?
One key contributor is the growth in able-bodied childless adults on the program. Between 2000 and 2008, the number of able-bodied childless adults receiving food stamps hovered at or below one million.
But by 2013, a record-high 4.9 million able-bodied, childless adults were receiving food stamps. Federal spending on food stamps for these able-bodied adults skyrocketed to more than $10 billion in 2013, up from just $462 million in 2000.
Federal law generally requires able-bodied childless adults to work or participate in employment or training programs for at least 20 hours per week in order to continue receiving food stamps. If they refuse to meet these requirements, federal law limits them to just three months of benefits during any three-year period.
But those work requirements have become irrelevant in recent years, as more states have received permission from the Obama administration to ignore them.
In 2006, just seven states were waiving work requirements for able-bodied childless adults statewide. By 2013, the Obama administration had granted statewide waivers to 40 states and partial waivers to another six states. Despite an improving economy, 42 states are still operating under statewide or partial waivers, which cover only certain regions or certain parts of the year.
Work Requirements Can Help Restore The Working Class
By waiving work requirements, states have engineered a system that perpetuates poverty and traps more and more Americans in a cycle of government dependency. This is particularly troubling given the fact that work is the best way to escape poverty. After all, a childless adult working just 32 hours per week at a minimum wage job would rise out of poverty. In some places, such as Washington state, they need work only 24 hours per week.
Ultimately, restoring these work requirements will protect resources for the truly needy, propel enrollees toward work and a better life, and provide a boost to states’ economies.
When states first adopted work-first welfare reforms, millions of welfare recipients moved into the labor force, spurring greater economic growth, lower caseloads, higher employment and lower poverty rates, particularly among the most at-risk populations. States restoring those work requirements are seeing similar results today.
Kansas And Maine Lead The Way
Several states have successfully restored federal work requirements for able-bodied adults receiving food stamps, with the ultimate goal of lifting more individuals out of government dependency and into self-sufficiency. Bold leaders in Kansas and Maine have led the charge.
Under the leadership of Governor Sam Brownback (R), Kansas restored these work requirements in October 2013. Before those requirements went into effect, between 25,000 and 30,000 able-bodied childless adults were receiving food stamps. Within months of the work requirements going into effect, more than half of them left the program. By April 2015, just 8,300 of them remained.
In October 2014, Maine Governor Paul LePage (R) followed Brownback’s lead and restored work requirements after six years of waiving them. Before the new requirements went into effect, 14,000 able-bodied childless adults were receiving benefits. By January 2015, nearly two-thirds of them had left the program. Although enrollment saw a slight uptick in February, fewer than 2,700 able-bodied childless adults were still receiving food stamps in March, a drop of 80 percent.
These actions are now inspiring other governors around the country, including Indiana Governor Mike Pence (R), Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (R), New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez (R), and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (R) to move in that direction.
Governors Can Pave The Way For Prosperity
Instead of waiving work requirements, governors across the country can (and should) let existing work requirement waivers expire this fall. By letting the waivers expire, governors can propel these able-bodied adults back into the labor force and out of dependency, helping to grow the economy and restore the working class. This common-sense reform will not only counteract the poverty trap, it will provide needed relief for taxpayers and protect limited resources for those who need help the most.
If All States Had Restored Work Requirements, Up To 4 Million Americans Would Have Left Food Stamps
This article originally appeared at Forbes on August 11, 2015.