Gov. Scott Walker’s new welfare reform plan includes a pilot work requirement for able-bodied parents receiving food stamps. It would require those with school-age children to work at least part-time or participate in a job training program.
Wisconsin already applies a similar requirement for able-bodied adults without dependents. Walker’s proposal would merely make getting a job an even greater focus of the state’s welfare system. And that’s a good thing.
Promoting self-sufficiency through work should be the foundational principle of any welfare system. Unfortunately, very few means-tested welfare programs have any type of work requirement at all.
Today, roughly 90 government means-tested welfare programs provide cash, food, housing and medical care to poor and lower-income Americans. These programs cost more than $1 trillion annually. Only four of these programs have any type of work requirement, and most of those requirements are too lax to do much good.
For example, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF) — a cash assistance program — requires states to have 50% of its able-bodied caseload working or doing work activity. Most states aren’t meeting even that low standard. Wisconsin, however, is doing much better than most: about 75% of its TANF work-eligible caseload is working or participating in work activity.
The lack of work in welfare is in strong conflict with public opinion. Nearly 90% of Americans agree that “able-bodied adults who receive cash, food, housing and medical assistance should be required to work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving those government benefits.”
We know that work requirements work. TANF’s work requirement originally went into place in 1996. Within about five years, TANF caseloads dropped by half, black child poverty plummeted to its lowest level in U.S. history, and employment rates among single mothers with less than a high school education increased by two-thirds.
Wisconsin itself provides another example. After Walker reinstated the food stamp work requirement for able-bodied adults without dependents, the caseload dropped and many got jobs. The same thing happened in Maine and Kansas, with both states experiencing a sharpdecline in the number of able-bodied adults without dependents claiming food stamps. In Kansas, about 60% of affected recipients found jobs within a year and their incomes increased by an average of 127%.
Wisconsin’s efforts — past and present — to promote self-sufficiency through work is commendable. Indeed, putting work at the foundation of the welfare system is what must happen at the federal level. This is because the welfare system is really a creature of the federal government. About 75% of welfare spending comes from the federal government. Since states have little financial responsibility for most welfare programs, many have little interest in making the programs run efficiently and effectively.
To get the system on track to promote work, Congress should start by putting a meaningful work requirement in the food stamps program. It should also strengthen TANF’s work requirement so states don’t leave so many able-bodied recipients idle.
Welfare work requirements promote self-sufficiency. They also promote reciprocity between those who provide the assistance and those who receive it. For too long, the welfare system has failed to promote these goals, leaving many to languish on the roles.
Wisconsin has the right idea in promoting work. It’s time for this to happen nationwide.
This piece originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel