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Promoted from the diaries by streiff. Promotion does not imply endorsement.
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By Joe Barnett

Should able-bodied, working-age adults with no dependents be required to work, seek work, or participate in work training programs as a condition of receiving nonemergency government assistance?

That is the question underlying a proposal by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to tighten work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), popularly known as “food stamps.” The period for comments from the public on the proposed regulation closed April 10. The rule could be modified or a final rule could be issued during the next few months.

With unemployment currently at 3.8 percent nationally and labor shortages in some sectors of the economy, it’s the ideal time to ensure limited government dollars are directed toward those most in need and to help keep government from encouraging people from to stay out of the workforce.

Common sense suggests that “something for nothing” is not a sustainable strategy for government and fosters unnecessary dependency among beneficiaries. That means that work rules must require the recipient to do something of value.

There have been SNAP work requirements in place since the Clinton administration, but as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) press release announcing the proposed rule states, “Under current SNAP requirements, [able-bodied adults without dependents] must work or participate in an employment program for at least 20 hours per week to continue to receive benefits for more than three months over a 36-month period.”

Unfortunately, states have been gaming the system to reduce the number of able-bodied adults who are required to contribute to society.

“States may request to waive the time limit in areas with an unemployment rate above 10 percent or where there are ‘not sufficient jobs,’ which current regulations primarily define as an unemployment rate 20 percent above the national average,” USDA states. Today, “that could include areas with unemployment rates of under 5 percent—a rate normally considered to be full employment.”

Writing for Governing magazine, Mattie Quinn notes, “States will often clump together certain areas that are struggling and have an unemployment rate, once combined, of 20 percent above the national average.”

California does this to such an extent that none of the abled-bodied adults in the state receiving SNAP benefits are subject to work requirements, notes the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA).

States can also stockpile waivers. States are currently allowed to waive up to 15 percent of able-bodied adults from work requirements. If a state doesn’t use those waivers, it can hold on to them and use them later to go above the enrollment limits. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue reportedly said in a media conference call that California has stockpiled more than 800,000 waivers.

Nearly three-fourths of the 3.8 million able-bodied individuals on the SNAP rolls in 2016 were not working, states USDA. In fiscal year 2019, “According to state data, nearly 63 percent of able-bodied adults without dependents on the program—some 2.6 million adults—will be waived from the work requirement,” FGA Vice President for Executive Affairs Sam Adolphsen testified before a congressional committee on April 3.

What will be the effect of the proposed rule? Based on 2017 data, Mathematica Policy Research, a public policy research company, estimates 88 percent of those who would lose benefits under the proposed rule currently live in households with incomes below the poverty line. Mathematica states about 164,000 of those who would be subject to work requirements are 18–21 years old.

Since these are single, able-bodied adults without dependents, they do not qualify for social safety-net programs designed to protect single parents with children or the elderly, disabled, or their caregivers. Only about one-third “lived in SNAP households with reported income,” states Mathematica. The reason they are so poor is clear: just “11 percent were working, although less than an average of 20 hours per week, and another 6 percent lived with someone else who was working.”

There will undoubtedly be difficulties for some individuals cut off from eligibility for SNAP, but the new rule might just persuade some people that, as Ronald Reagan said, “the best social program is a job.”

Joe Barnett ([email protected]) is a research fellow with The Heartland Institute.