House Takes Step Towards Transformative Welfare Reform

Lawmakers took a significant step towards strengthening human service programs today. The House Health Committee passed HB 2138 with bipartisan support to restore the dignity of work for people enrolled in Medicaid. The bill begins the process of establishing work or community service requirements for healthy adults, creating a clear and permanent pathway to independence.

HB 2138, sponsored by Rep. Matt Dowling, instructs DHS to craft a waiver seeking authority from the federal government to implement Medicaid work requirements. These requirements can mirror those already used in Pennsylvania by SNAP. To date, Washington has approved three of ten submitted Medicaid work requirement waivers (Kentucky, Indiana, and Arkansas).

HB 1659sponsored by Rep. Mike Tobash, did not come up for a vote, but is also critical in terms of breaking the cycle of poverty. The bill prohibits the Department of Human Services (DHS) from requesting waivers for SNAP (also known as Food Stamps) work requirements. Currently, 17 states require all healthy adults without dependents to work part time or volunteer part time to maintain benefits. In Pennsylvania, work is waived in all but eight counties, despite Pennsylvania's skilled-labor shortage.

Work and community service requirements for healthy adults are a proven solution. When Kansas applied SNAP work requirements statewide, 75 percent of recipients left and half of those individuals saw their incomes rise by 127 percent. With similar reforms, we project up to 100,000 Pennsylvanians would leave SNAP and see up to $210 million in higher wages. Likewise Kentucky estimates about 95,000 Medicaid recipients will choose to leave the program by year five.

Work and community service requirements are popular. Nationally 79 percent of voters support work requirements for healthy adults on food stamps. That includes 70 percent of Democrats and 90 percent of Republicans. In Pennsylvania, two thirds of likely voters support work and community service requirements for healthy adults on Medicaid.

Critics of reform claim administrative costs would make these important changes too burdensome. They ignore how a Medicaid work or community service requirement aligned with the current food stamp rules could reduce administrative burdens and create a more seamless system. There is no doubt transformative changes will take time and investment, but logistics should not prevent us from helping Pennsylvanians improve their quality of life.

Medicaid enrollment is at an all-time high, with half of healthy adults on the program not working. Food stamp enrollment remains persistently high as well. Pennsylvania can do better. Instead of focusing on new revenue sources to support growing enrollment, we should be eager to adopt reforms that boost incomes and shrink waiting lists for people most in need.