One of America’s strengths is that we are a nation of strong communities made up of people who look out for and truly help each other. Last year more than 95 percent of households gave a total of $358 billion to charity, a record high. But more than that, Americans want to see their neighbors in need permanently lifted out of poverty and move on to a better life. The road forward is often paved with a good full-time job.
We believe that government should empower citizens to live life free from the bondage of poverty and government dependence. The most effective way to fight poverty is to fight for individuals who are struggling to break out from under its heavy burden.
Sadly, many of our current welfare programs discourage or offer disincentives to finding work and instead promote dependency and long-term poverty. Our fellow governors have an opportunity to change that by restoring job-search, volunteer or work requirements in key welfare programs. We encourage governors not to renew work waivers for able-bodied adults without dependent children who are on food assistance and, instead, help lift millions off of welfare and transition them to meaningful jobs as a result.
According to a Rasmussen survey, 83 percent of Americans believe that work is the best way out of poverty. Requiring welfare recipients to look for work, volunteer in the community or secure employment is incredibly popular, enjoying overwhelming support from both Republicans at 93 percent and Democrats at 81 percent, according to the survey. This overwhelming, bipartisan support is not surprising, given that it was a Democratic president and Republicans in Congress who first instituted work requirements as part of landmark welfare reform legislation in 1996.
Unfortunately, this bipartisan reform has been undermined at the federal level by making it far too easy for a state to suspend the work requirements for food assistance for some adults. The number of able-bodied adults on the program has skyrocketed, increasing dependency on government subsidies and plunging the food assistance program into fiscal crisis.
Food assistance cost taxpayers $80 billion last year, up from just $17 billion in 2000. Our national food assistance spending is growing 10 times faster than federal revenues and four times faster than the rest of the budget. This kind of astronomical growth is unsustainable. We absolutely need to preserve the safety net for the truly needy, but at this rate, we will struggle to afford it for anyone.
It is also concerning that the number of people on food assistance climbs even as the number of people in poverty declines. Worse yet, data shows that food assistance use is growing faster than employment. Between 2000 and 2013, more than six people were added to food assistance programs for every new job created.
The personal toll of welfare dependency is a major reason work requirements are so important. We know that work helps people beyond just financial security; it also improves their sense of worth, dignity and even their physical health. We must provide a path that leads to opportunity and hope, not to dependency on government programs.
Restoring work requirements for food assistance has the potential to transform millions of lives by returning our welfare system to the hand-up it was designed to be. Work requirements benefit all of us by protecting our limited resources for the truly needy, propelling those in need toward work and a better, healthier life and giving them the hope of a brighter future. Getting more people to work is key to growing our state economies.
The states that have reinstated their work requirements, such as Kansas and Maine, are already seeing very positive results. Both states saw a substantial drop in their unemployment rates after restoring their work requirements, and charity organizations in Maine are enjoying extremely high levels of volunteerism. These volunteers are getting valuable training and job skills that make them more marketable and attractive to employers, while also providing a valuable service within their communities. Work requirements have helped millions transition to meaningful and rewarding work since they were established in 1996, and states are seeing the value of reinstating them. While the states have until Sept. 1 to decide which way they’ll go, many are already making the move, with Indiana restoring its work requirement this month, and New Mexico joining them shortly after.
There are a lot of creative ways we can help those in need without trapping them in the cycle of dependency and poverty, but one of the simplest, most proven and most popular ways we can help people find their own feet again is to tie public assistance to a strong work requirement for those who can work. It is time to restore greater opportunities for a stronger working class in America.
• Sam Brownback is the governor of Kansas. Susana Martinez is the governor of New Mexico. Both are Republicans.