Will work for food stamps?

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: welfare reform.

NICK EICHER, HOST: Congress passed welfare reform in 1996 in part to decrease dependency on long-term welfare. One reform was to the program SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Perhaps it’s better known as food stamps.

The number of Americans receiving them fell to 17 million  five years after the reform. But then came the recession. By 2013, the number had almost tripled: 48 million people that year used SNAP.

REICHARD: Today, the number of Americans receiving SNAP benefits is falling again. But despite record high employment, there are still more than 38 million Americans on food stamps.

The Trump administration wants to reinvigorate those earlier reforms, and move more Americans from food stamps to self-sufficiency.

Here’s WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Scott Walter is president of the Capital Research Center and a former domestic policy adviser to President George W. Bush. He says the 1996 welfare reforms worked because they required many people getting government assistance to have some kind of job.

WALTER: People who get helped shouldn’t be considered helpless victims, doomed to a life of dependency. They should be respected as people who can fulfill their own responsibilities and should have the expectation to perform their responsibilities.

But, Walter says during the recession, the Obama administration made it easier for states to ignore federal welfare work requirements. That allowed states to keep more people on welfare and take in more federal funding.  

WALTER: Some states have pretty good records of being careful to encourage people and require people to work. So that dependency is avoided. But other states are not good about that.

Last year, lawmakers tried to include new SNAP reforms in the 2018 Farm Bill. But in order to pass the bill, Republicans took them out. So, in December, the Trump administration proposed a watered-down regulatory version of that proposal.

The regulation targets able-bodied adults without dependents. These are food stamp recipients between the ages of 18 and 49 who don’t have anyone to care for and are not disabled.

Under the proposed rule change, an able-bodied adult without dependents must spend 20 hours per week working or attending job training. If they don’t, they can only get SNAP benefits for three months.

Sam Adolphsen is a welfare reform researcher with the Foundation for Government Accountability. He says these work requirements give individuals an opportunity to find a good job.

ADOLPHSEN: That way they’re gaining experience, they’re getting engaged in the community and they’re starting to move towards earning independently and being off the program.

According to the USDA, SNAP rolls included nearly 4 million able-bodied adults without dependents in 2016. Almost three quarters of them weren’t working.

The new rule would only allow states to waive federal work requirements if state unemployment is above 7 percent. Right now, the only state close to that threshold is Alaska.

Adolphsen says with 7 million job openings across the country, it’s a good time to begin enforcing work requirements.

ADOLPHSEN: The Trump administration is really trying to close that loophole and make sure that those folks have to go back to work or at least try to work in order to keep receiving the welfare benefit.

Critics of the proposal predict thousands of low wage earners will lose needed aid if the proposed rule is implemented. But Adolphsen says research shows the opposite.

Over the past few years, the Foundation for Government Accountability tracked what happened in Kansas, Arkansas, and Maine when these states enforced work requirements.

For example, Adolphsen says when Arkansas implemented work requirements in 2016, it saw a 70 percent decline in able-bodied, childless adults enrolled in SNAP. And within two years of leaving welfare, people’s income tripled.

ADOLPHSEN: We’ve seen when work requirements come into play in a state that people are quickly moving off welfare, and they’re earning at least double or triple what they did before.

Patrice Onwuka is a policy analyst at the Independent Women’s Forum. She says enforcing work requirement rules will actually improve states’ job training programs and the opportunities to get hired.

ONWUKA: The job training funding is a really critical piece and I think an important opportunity for those who need to be re-skilled.

The Trump administration estimates enforcing work requirements will save taxpayers $15 billion dollars over 10 years. Sam Adolphsen says while that’s good, saving money is beside the point.

ADOLPHSEN: Really the way we measure success here is by seeing how many people are moving away from the life of dependency on welfare and moving into a life of independence and experiencing the dignity that that work brings.

The administration will take public comments on the proposed rule until April 2nd.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.

(Photo/Julio Cortez, Associated Press) A Transportation Security Administration employee visits a booth to find out more about food stamps at a food drive at Newark Liberty International Airport last month. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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