Work requirements are a critical part of welfare. Without them in place, welfare can quickly become a way of life instead of a temporary safety net. Unfortunately, states have used numerous workarounds to void work requirements in food stamps, perpetuating dependency and leaving taxpayers on the hook.
One such workaround is blanket waivers. States can get permission from the federal government to exempt able-bodied, childless adults from work requirements if they qualify for work waivers. Under federal law, states must have at least 10 percent unemployment or “a demonstrated lack of job opportunities” to qualify for these waivers, but agency interpretation of these rules has expanded them well beyond their original intent.
In 2015, 42 states were using these waivers to waive work requirements entirely. Thankfully, that trend is starting to reverse and states that are now enforcing work have seen the incomes of former enrollees more than double, more than offsetting lost welfare benefits and leaving them better off overall.
But even if states no longer qualify for blanket waivers, there’s another workaround they can use to skirt work requirements. It’s called the 15 percent exemption.
This provision allows states to extend benefits to enrollees who fail to meet the work requirement. States are allotted exemptions every year for 15 percent of able-bodied, childless adults. Each exemption is worth one month of free benefits for an able-bodied enrollee, exempting them from the work requirement for that month.
The 15 percent exemption is bad enough on its own. Able-bodied adults on welfare should be required to work. A vast majority of voters—including 70 percent of Democrats — agree. In fact, a vast majority of voters don’t think these adults should receive food stamps at all.
States shouldn’t be able to sidestep work requirements at the expense of taxpayers and the truly needy who depend on food stamps.
But the 15 percent exemption is actually worse than it seems on the surface. Although federal law says the exemptions may not “exceed 15 percent of the number of covered individuals in the state,” prior administrations have allowed states to stockpile these exemptions and roll them over from year to year. Now some states are even using more exemptions than they receive in a given year.
The practical effect is simple. States can skirt work requirements, allowing able-bodied adults to stay on welfare far longer than they should, wasting limited resources that could go to truly needy individuals.
Ohio, for example, earned just 75,000 exemptions in 2016. But thanks to their stockpile from prior years, they used nearly 392,000 exemptions the same year—more than five times what they actually qualified for.
Nationwide, states have accumulated 6.4 million exemptions to date, worth more than $1 billion in taxpayer-funded welfare benefits.
Thankfully, there may be a change on the horizon. The Office of Inspector General recently examined this carryover scheme. Based on their investigation, OIG concluded that the current regulations “allows the states to accumulate more than the 15 percent allowed per the statute.” Going a step further, OIG said they disagree with the agency’s process of carrying over unused exemptions indefinitely.
And the good news for taxpayers and the truly needy? It won’t require an act of Congress to get this right. The Trump administration can reverse this disastrous policy by simply realigning food stamp regulations with federal law, eliminating rules that allow states to carry over unused exemptions.
President Trump has repeatedly signaled his intent to reform welfare and help Americans get back to work. This would be a good, simple first step.
This article originally appeared on The Hill on September 1, 2017.