America is in the midst of a dependency crisis. There’s no other way to state it. Despite a strong job market and nearly 6 million open jobs across the country, welfare rolls remain at or near record highs. And able-bodied adults are driving the crisis.
States have finally begun reversing Obama-era policies and reinstating work requirements for some able-bodied childless adults, but federal law significantly limits what they can do. Able-bodied adults on food stamps are mostly exempt from work requirements if they have children, despite the fact that they have no disabilities keeping them from working.
With no real work requirement in place, enrollment and spending have soared. Today, more than 12 million able-bodied parents are dependent on the program — nearly three times the number enrolled in 2000. And although work is critical to making families self-sufficient, just one in eight able-bodied parents on food stamps are working full-time. Most do not work at all.
Far too many are simply left to languish on welfare indefinitely, trapped in a cycle of dependency and despair. Two in five will remain on food stamps for more than eight years. Fewer than one in five will leave within a year. Work can change that.
Getting able-bodied parents back into the labor force as quickly as possible is critical to returning them to a path of self-sufficiency and ending the cycle of dependency. Research shows that re-entering the workforce becomes harder for able-bodied adults the longer they spend on welfare and the longer they spend not working.
Work requirements are a proven, efficient tool to reduce dependency. After Kansas implemented work requirements for able-bodied, childless adults on food stamps, caseloads dropped by 75 percent and the average amount of time spent on welfare was cut in half. Individuals who left welfare went back to work in more than 600 different industries and saw their incomes more than double. When Maine implemented the same work requirements, it saw similar impressive results: Incomes of former enrollees more than doubled and caseloads declined by 90 percent.
States have seen similar outcomes after work requirements were implemented for able-bodied parents on other welfare programs. In Kansas, for example, stronger work requirement sanctions for parents on cash welfare were followed by lower caseloads, more employment and higher incomes. Able-bodied parents removed from TANF found employment in hundreds of different industries, ranging from health care to finance to information technology.
Even better, many of those who found initial employment in entry-level jobs — such as those in food service, retail or temp agencies — quickly found longer-term, higher-paying jobs. As a result, incomes more than doubled within the first year and continued to grow year after year. Within four years, incomes had more than tripled.
A new report by the Foundation for Government Accountability finds that implementing work requirements for able-bodied parents on food stamps would move millions of able-bodied adults back to work. The reform could save taxpayers up to $12 billion per year — preserving resources for the truly needy — as up to 7 million people leave the program. It would mean hope and opportunity for millions of families trapped in dependency.
The reform is simple. Able-bodied adults should work, train or volunteer at least part-time to receive benefits. We know work is the single best way to move people out of dependency. And the public knows it, too — a recent poll found that 90 percent of Americans support work requirements for all able-bodied adults on welfare.
Congress should look to states like Wisconsin for inspiration. During Gov. Scott Walker’s recent special session on welfare reform, the legislature passed a comprehensive package of reforms designed to move more able-bodied adults from welfare to work. One of the most important reforms included in that package was the requirement that all able-bodied adults — including parents — work or participate in a job training program in order to receive food stamps. But the legislation made clear that the requirements could only be applied “to the extent allowed by the federal government.”
Mr. Walker’s welfare reform plan is one of the boldest in America. It has the power to move thousands of able-bodied adults out of welfare and into self-sufficiency. But without congressional action, federal rules and exemptions could hamstring Wisconsin’s reform efforts.
Children shouldn’t mean an exemption from work — they should mean the opposite, a dramatic sharpening of the imperative to work. Able-bodied parents on food stamps have been trapped in dependency for too long. It’s time for Congress to act. It’s time to expand commonsense work requirements to all able-bodied adults, including parents.
• Jonathan Ingram is vice president of research at the Foundation for Government Accountability, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to replacing failed health and welfare programs nationwide.
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