Work Requirements on Tap in Washington and Harrisburg

At the end of this month, the federal farm bill expires. Its replacement—a monolithic piece of legislation—is the subject of significant controversy over strengthening food stamp work requirements for healthy adults. But this idea isn't controversial to most Americans.

Seventy-nine percent of American voters support work requirements for healthy, childless adults using food stamps. Support is bipartisan and runs across gender lines. So why the controversy?

The reforms in the House version of the bill will close many of the loopholes and gimmicks states have used to expand eligibility and weaken work incentives to rob people of the pride and independence that comes from work. Today, about 73 percent of healthy adults using food stamps in Pennsylvania are not working.

Fortunately, a large contingent of U.S. senators and representatives are working to reconcile the reform-minded House bill and the status quo Senate bill. Among those is Pennsylvania Congressman G.T. Thompson who writes,

Without question, SNAP remains incredibly important for many Americans, yet real and ultimate food security only comes from a family sustaining job. . . Let’s provide this work-capable population new opportunities by enforcing the expectation and dignity of work, while modernizing the supports to find employment.

Programs like food stamps should be designed to put individuals on a permanent path to prosperity, not trap them in a cycle of poverty. Yet in Pennsylvania, food stamp work requirements are waived in 59 counties despite the labor shortage across the commonwealth.

That’s why state lawmakers are taking up a similar cause. This spring the state House passed H.B. 1659 to give the General Assembly approval over any proposal waiving food stamp work requirements. The bill sits one vote away from passage in the Senate.

H.B. 1659 is important regardless of what happens in D.C. The U.S. House bill keeps state waivers, but it limits their use. For instance, DHS can currently combine county employment rates across the state to exempt large populations from work. Under the House proposal, bureaucrats will be prohibited from this type of gerrymandering.

If the provisions of the House bill were in effect during the last round of state waiver requests, more than 70 percent of jurisdictions seeking waivers would have been denied.  In other words, a clear and simple waiver process would reduce the number of work-exempt able-bodied adults by 87 percent. That means hundreds of thousands of Americans rejoining the workforce.  

So what exactly would the House bill change regarding food stamps and work? First of all, it eliminates the three month time limit for healthy adults without young kids who chose not to work. Instead it applies a simpler work/volunteer/education requirement of 20 hours a week for any healthy adult between the ages of 18-59 with children over the age of six. Additionally the bill increases the availability of training or education and guarantees a training slot for every adult required to work.

Most food stamp recipients would see no change since about 2/3rds of recipients are kids, elderly, new moms, or disabled. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do better for the estimated 203,000 healthy Pennsylvanians exempt from work requirements due to waivers.

At its root, food insecurity comes from a lack of income or opportunity to work. With a thriving economy, now is the time for lawmakers to demonstrate their commitment to the value of work