Bureaucrats are Keeping Pennsylvanians Dependent on Food Stamps

Great things are happening in our economy, including more job opportunities and rising incomes. Yet, Pennsylvania is continuing to see near-record food stamp enrollment.

The Census Bureau's newly-released American Community Survey reports Pennsylvania’s poverty rate remained at 13.1 percent between 2013 and 2017. At the same time, median pay increased slightly to $56,951. However, food stamp enrollment increased.

Food stamp (or SNAP) enrollment peaked in 2015-16 at 1.88 million, up from 1.2 million in 2008-09, according to the Department of Human Services. Today, enrollment remains high at 1.8 million.

Food stamp enrollment should be returning to historical levels as people go back to work and raise their incomes, but that isn’t happening. Why?

Some blame the poor quality of available jobs. In other words, people are limited to low-paying jobs and part-time work so they continue to qualify for food stamps. But that doesn’t square with the experience of Pennsylvania manufacturers like Channellock, which are struggling to fill well-paying jobs. There is ample evidence good jobs are available and not getting filled.

There’s something else driving long-term growth in food stamp enrollment—work waivers.

During the Great Recession, the federal government granted states waivers from existing rules requiring healthy, childless individuals to work or train part-time to maintain food stamp benefits. For years, all Pennsylvanians receiving food stamps were exempt from these rules because job opportunities were slim. In 2016, that changed. Pennsylvania began reinstating work requirements in counties with improving economic conditions. But it’s been a slow road.

In 2017, the Wolf administration secured waivers for 43 counties. In 2018, the number of counties exempt from work requirements expanded to 59! We can all agree the economy isn’t declining in 59 of Pennsylvania's 67 counties.


(Infograph: Food Stamp Work Waivers)

Pennsylvania’s onerous taxes, regulatory burden, and aging population do present economic challenges, but deprioritizing work will not reduce poverty. As we’ve noted, other states that ended waivers saw individuals double their incomes and gain independence. That’s why we promoted 2018 legislation allowing lawmakers to influence this little known, yet incredibly important waiver process.

Federal lawmakers failed to restore the dignity and power of work this year, but state lawmakers still have a chance to succeed. By ending or at least limiting work waivers, they’ll help Pennsylvanians do more than scrape by with food stamps. They’ll help move Pennsylvanians off the sidelines and into fulfilling jobs that raise their income and improve their quality of life.