Welfare Reform: The number of childless, able-bodied adult food stamp recipients in a New England state fell by 80% over the course of a few months. This didn’t require magic, just common sense.
From December 2014 to March 2015, the caseload of able-bodied Maine adults with no dependents crashed from 13,332 recipients to 2,678, says the Heritage Foundation. This is a remarkable change and needs to be repeated in government programs across the country.
How Maine achieved this is no mystery. Gov. Paul LePage simply established work requirements for food stamp recipients who have no dependents and are able enough to be employed. They must, write Heritage policy analysts Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield, “take a job” — just 20 hours a week — “participate in training, or perform community service” for a mere 24 hours a week. Recipients who do none of those are stripped of their food stamp benefits after three months.
This isn’t a radical new idea. Rector and Sheffield cite a successful historical precedent:
“When work requirements were established in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program in the 1990s, nationwide caseloads dropped by almost as much, albeit over a few years rather than a few months.”
In the Obama era, “the food stamp caseload of adults without dependents who are able-bodied has more than doubled nationally, swelling from nearly 2 million recipients in 2008 to around 5 million today” across the country, Rector and Sheffield report. That’s far too many Americans who can take care of themselves living at the expense of others. The situation cries out for reform.
The Heritage report says that if the Maine policy were repeated nationally, and the caseload dropped “at the same rate it did in Maine (which is very likely), taxpayer savings would be over $8.4 billion per year.”
“Further reforms could bring the savings to $9.7 billion per year: around $100 per year for every individual currently paying federal income tax.”
On top of the savings, there would be the added benefit of increasing the number of productive members of the economy, and cutting the cycle of government dependence that is ruinous to a society.
The political left, of course, has tried to characterize the Maine policy as cruel. A Washington Post headline obliquely attacks LePage for having the audacity to suggest that Mainers should work for their food. A year ago, Think Progress was troubled that Maine had “kicked 6,500 people off of food stamps so far this winter.”
But the work requirement is modest, and Rector and Sheffield assure us that “job openings for lower-skill workers are abundant in Maine.” And there is nothing extreme about asking the able-bodied to demonstrate some responsibility and take care of themselves. In fact, putting the able-bodied in position to be self-sufficient is a service to them, helping them shake their soul-strangling dependency on the state.
It is a service to their descendants, as well, since welfare dependency is often passed down through the family, trapping generations in poverty. Welfare programs truly create a moral hazard, as recipients have no reason to stop making the poor decisions that first initiated, and then exacerbated, their situations. Knowing the state will backstop their missteps gives them reason to keep making them, setting up a pattern that will be followed by their progeny.
The success in Maine is but a blip, affecting only a thin slice of the nation’s welfare rolls. Yet it is a model, a prototype for reforming welfare programs in need of change or elimination, which is all of them. Policymakers at all levels should be rushing to adopt it, then adapt it.