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  • To make welfare less attractive, we should consider how to make work more attractive. Tweet This
  • Reducing the need for public assistance is linked to our conversation about living-wage jobs. Tweet This

For many childless, able-bodied adults who had been receiving food stamps, 2016 is the end—at least for a few years. More than 40 states are reinstating work requirements that had been waived after the Great Recession for select recipients of SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, but popularly known as food stamps).

Under the work requirements—which were included in the 1996 welfare reform legislation—childless adults ages 18-49 with no disabilities must either work or participate in a job training program for at least 20 hours a week in order to keep receiving food stamps. Those who don’t meet those requirements are limited to only three months worth of food stamps within three years. So if you don’t get a job or sign up for job training, you don’t get food stamps. The reinstatement of these requirements comes at a time in which food stamp enrollment surged from about 17 million in 2000 to a high of almost 48 million in 2013, though enrollment has been trending downward in the last few years.

Do Work Requirements Work? 

The state of Kansas became one of the first states to reinstate the requirements in 2013. They also entrusted the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA) to sift through a massive database that tracks all Kansans as they leave the food stamps program and re-enter the workforce.

In their early 2016 report, the FGA found that within just three months of the new Kansas law, about half of childless, able-bodied adults who had been receiving food stamps left. The rolls dropped dramatically, from about 30,000 before work requirements were enacted in October 2013 to about 12,000 by early 2014, and about 7,500 by the end of 2015.

Moreover, nearly 60 percent of those who left food stamps found work within a year and saw their incomes rise by an average of 127 percent per year. (However, it’s impossible to tell from the Kansas data if the people who found work after leaving food stamps did so because of the work requirements, of if they would have found work anyway.) Among former food stamp recipients who were working, about half had been lifted out of poverty within a year. Their incomes rose from an average of about $6,700 at the time they were receiving food stamps to about $13,300 a year after leaving food stamps.

But there are reasons to be concerned.

First, even though average incomes rose by 127 percent among Kansans who left food stamps, most of these individuals were still living in deep poverty. Average income rose from almost $2,500 before work requirements to about $5,600 a year after work requirements. Even for those who are working, about half are still living in poverty. And the other half of working Kansans who left food stamps—who have an average annual income of about$13,300—are still hovering close to poverty.

A study commissioned by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the years after the 1996 welfare reform legislation found similar results. The study of able-bodied, childless adults who left food stamps in four states found that while “employment rates are significant…earnings and incomes are low and their poverty rates are high.” Even though 76 percent of Iowa respondents were employed after leaving food stamps, an astonishing 68 percent were still living in poverty. Among Illinois respondents, 65 percent were still poor. South Carolina and Arizona respondents fared better, though a large minority (46 percent and 37 percent, respectively) were still poor.

Second, many people cut off from food stamps still do not find work. In Kansas, a large minority (about 40 percent) were still not working a year later. Many individuals in the USDA study were also not working: from a high of 59 percent in Illinois to a low of 24 percent in Iowa.

An assessment of nearly 5,000 able-bodied, childless recipients in Franklin County, Ohio, provides a glimpse into the barriers that this population faces in finding and keeping work. Thirty-six percent had a felony conviction, only 40 percent indicated that they had a valid driver’s license, and 12 percent reported a disability that kept them from being able to work. There are also probably deeper and more hidden factors keeping people from work, but whatever the reasons, research suggests that we can expect at least a large minority of able-bodied, childless adults to be without work even after losing food stamps.

If we’re going to be forthright about the responsibilities of individuals to find and keep work, we need to be honest about the responsibilities of employers to provide good working conditions.

Finally, many who do enter the workforce must navigate the difficulties of the low-wage workplaceunpredictable hours and schedules, a lack of reasonable health insurance plans, and workplaces with few living-wage jobs for which they can strive. And they have to navigate this maze on their own, with few to none of the protections that unions used to provide.

So if we care about making welfare less attractive, we should think about how to make work more attractive. This is why reducing the need for public assistance is closely linked to our national conversation about living-wage jobs that provide basic protections like predictable work schedules, and paid sick and parental leave.

If we’re going to be forthright about the responsibilities of individuals to find and keep work, we also need to be honest about the responsibilities of employers to provide good working conditions. Employers who pay poverty wages—or base their business models on part-time work from full-time job seekers, or burden their low-wage employees with erratic work schedules—contribute to the demand for public assistance. This is the embarrassing point of the now infamous budget guide that McDonald’s formerly offered employees, in which monthly expenses for food and heating and childcare expenses were omitted and a measly $20 was allotted for health insurance. (After all, the government can cover those things, right?) For adults, the low-wage workplace can be a gateway into government dependence.

We should also be cautious about applying work requirements to parents, particularly those with young children. For one thing, it’s more difficult to find a job when you have children, especially if you have an unpredictable work schedule or you work at a second- or third-shift job. And even if parents do find work, the research is depressing. While $13,300—roughly the average annual income of working, childless Kansans a year after leaving food stamps—is enough to technically (and barely) lift a childless adult out of poverty, it is not enough to lift a single parent or single-earner family out of poverty. For instance, a single parent with at least one child who receives an average income of $13,300 a year is still living in poverty.

Most of us agree that empowering more people to move from public assistance to self-sufficiency is a laudable goal. For that reason, work requirements are an important part of the conversation. But we also need to talk about the barriers that keep people from living-wage work.