Column: Reform welfare for able-bodied

Mimi Teixeira

Michigan is experiencing the longest sustained period of job growth since World War II, but you wouldn’t know it from the number of work-capable people on food assistance.

Despite significantly lower unemployment, more residents receive food assistance today than in 2008. Back then, the unemployment rate was 8.4 percent and 12.9 percent of the state received Food Assistance Program (FAP) payments. Now, the unemployment rate has plunged to 4.7 percent, yet 13.4 percent of the population still claims FAP benefits.

Part of this is due to a loophole in federal law that allows Michigan to exempt large numbers of able-bodied adults from welfare work requirements, even if they have no dependents. Amid a roaring recovery, the state is enabling adults fully capable of working to instead sit on the sidelines and out of the labor force.

Federal food stamp policy currently requires any able-bodied adult without dependents to complete an approved “work activity” every week to remain eligible for aid. A person can fulfill the requirement in one of several ways: working at least 20 hours, participating in a job-training program, conducting a supervised job search, or volunteering.

Work requirements have been part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program since the 1996 welfare reform, but a loophole allows states to waive those requirement in areas with high unemployment or low job creation. That loophole has rendered the requirement meaningless in most of Michigan. Currently, 69 of the state’s 83 counties are exempt and do not enforce work requirements.

These waivers are both unnecessary and unwise. Many of the “waived” counties now have rather low unemployment. Branch County, for example, had an unemployment rate of 4.9 percent as of February. Unemployment is under 6 percent in 14 waived counties.

Moreover, the work requirements are far from onerous. Indeed, they are so flexible they can be met even if you can’t find an unsubsidized job. Volunteer work, skills training, looking for work and other activities that help a person prepare for employment are all considered work.

Enforcing the work requirement is both fair to taxpayers and compassionate toward work-capable recipients. Michigan spent nearly $2 billion on food assistance last year, making it the largest non-healthcare means-tested welfare program in the state by far. A Heritage Foundation poll last year found that 92 percent of Americans believe that work-capable adults should be required to work — or at least prepare for work — as a condition of receiving government benefits.

Other states have taken steps in that direction with great success. In 2015, Maine reinstituted work requirements for childless, work-capable adults, statewide. To assure that no one would be forced off food stamps, the state guaranteed that all able-bodied adult recipients without dependents would have access to job training and volunteer slots. Still, the requirement precipitated an 80 percent drop in the state’s non-parent caseload.

It appears as though a great many of those who dropped out of the program were already employed. This measure succeeded in reinstituting an expectation of work, reducing fraud in the program, and saving taxpayer money to be used in a better way.

Closing the loophole also benefits food-stamp recipients who are able to work. Engaging in meaningful work is an important component of human happiness, and the best welfare program helps work-capable recipients eventually achieve self-sustaining employment. Work requirements also engage recipients in their communities.

Work requirements for work-capable adults are compassionate, fair, and effective. Michigan should ride the wave of its economic recovery to end its work waivers and help able-bodied food stamp recipients get back on the road to independence.

Mimi Teixeira is a graduate fellow in welfare policy at The Heritage Foundation.