March 22, 2016 | Commentary on Welfare Reform, Work and Welfare

Welfare Reform Must Include Work Requirements

How can we ensure that welfare acts as a safety net for the truly needy and not as a handout to able-bodied adults who can work? It’s a question that has long vexed federal and state officials, but there is a good answer.

House Speaker Paul Ryan recently announced the members of a task force who will be responsible for building an anti-poverty, welfare-reform agenda. Welfare reform is one of his top priorities.

For a model of successful reforms to means-tested welfare programs that promote self-sufficiency, the task force need look no further than the state of Maine. In 2014, Maine took the initiative to require work participation for food stamp recipients who are able-bodied adults and have no dependents. As a result, its caseload plummeted.

Technically, the federal food stamp program has a modest work requirement for able-bodied adults without dependents. They are limited to three months of food stamps unless they are working part time or participating in job training or community service.

However, in 2009, the Obama administration suspended the work requirement for nearly two years. After that, most states were able to continue bypassing the work requirement due to work waivers that the law allows. In 2014, however, Maine chose to stop waiving the work requirement.

After the work requirement was put into place, Maine’s caseload of able-bodied adults without dependents dropped by 80 percent within three months. In December 2014, when the work requirement went into effect, there were 13,332 such adults receiving food stamps. By March 2015, only 2,678 were on the rolls.

Job openings for lower-skill workers are abundant in Maine. If an individual cannot find work, the state provides training and community service options. Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services reached out to able-bodied adult recipients to let them know about community service opportunities that would fulfill the work requirement. However, most chose to forgo their food stamp benefits rather than fulfill the requirement.

A similar pattern of caseload decline happened after the 1996 welfare reform, which transformed the largest cash assistance welfare program by inserting work requirements. Within about five years, the caseload had declined by half.

Work requirements serve as a gatekeeper to ensure that those truly in need receive welfare assistance. Benefits are available to those who need them, but individuals who could otherwise find a job are directed toward work. This policy benefits not only taxpayers but also the individuals who are steered toward the job market, where they can build their resumes, skills and connections.

Americans support the idea of work requirements for welfare. The vast majority, nearly 90 percent, agree that able-bodied adults receiving means-tested welfare assistance should be required to work or prepare for work.

Reforming welfare to promote work is crucial to getting the nation’s welfare system back on track. We can’t promote self-sufficiency without it. The federal government should establish a federal work requirement for food stamps. Able-bodied adults without dependents should be required to work, prepare for work or look for work in order to receive benefits.

If the same results that occurred in Maine took place nationwide, the overall savings would amount to $8.4 billion annually. Further reforms could add another $1.3 billion in savings, for a total annual savings of $9.7 billion.

Work should be the underlying principle of welfare. Yet very few of the nation’s 80 means-tested welfare programs require work. Reforming food stamps with a work requirement for able-bodied adults would be a perfect place to start.

 - Rachel Sheffield is a policy analyst in the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Rachel Sheffield Policy Analyst
DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society

Related Issues: Welfare Reform, Work and Welfare

Originally appeared in Buffalo News