New Evidence Shows Work is the Path to Prosperity

Poverty and unemployment are vicious cycles. The longer you remain unemployed, the harder it is to find work—and poverty becomes more entrenched. As the Urban Institute puts it, “long-term unemployment begets longer-term unemployment.”

New evidence from Florida shows there’s a way to help break this vicious cycle. A recent Foundation for Government Accountability report found that work-oriented reforms are helping individuals on SNAP (food stamps) access more opportunities and sustaining paychecks.

Nearly 94 percent of able-bodied, childless adults have left Florida's food stamp program since the state implemented work requirements in 2016. Most importantly—and the true goal of work requirements—those individuals are employed and enjoying the dignity of self-support.

  • Individuals leaving the program found work in over 1,000 industries across Florida’s economy.
  • Nearly 70 percent of those who initially found lower-wage work, such as in the fast food industry or for temp agencies, had transitioned to higher-wage sectors in just one year. Indeed, work in higher-wage industries grew over time.
  • Enrollees are cycling off the program more quickly, with nearly 40 percent of individuals enrolled for less than a month, compared to 10 percent pre-reform.

Work requirements have been similarly successful in Kansas, Maine, and Arkansas. It’s a decades-old federal policy requiring healthy adults (18-49) without dependents to work or participate in education and training activities for 80 hours a month to continue receiving benefits. Otherwise, they can only receive three months of SNAP benefits during a fixed three-year period. In addition to encouraging work among the abled, the limitations free up resources for those who need help the most.

However, states can temporarily waive these standards amidst high unemployment or job unavailability. The use of waivers spiked after the Great Recession, but states like Pennsylvania continue to overuse them. Food stamp enrollment across the commonwealth continues to grow and 63 counties have applied for these waivers despite improved economic conditions and a demand for more workers. The result? Nearly 300,000 (75 percent) of healthy, childless Pennsylvania adults on SNAP are not working.

 (Map: Food Stamp Work Waivers)

An overwhelming 80 percent of Americans support work requirements. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the SNAP program, has proposed strengthening the wavier criteria, we needn’t wait for federal action. Rep. Mike Tobash has introduced HB 435 to prohibit the state from applying for SNAP waivers.

Work, education, and community engagement are crucial for breaking the unemployment and poverty cycle and transitioning Pennsylvanians to independence. Work requirements bridge the welfare to workforce gap. But most importantly, they protect the most vulnerable Pennsylvanians while encouraging the able-bodied to gain the skills and experience for lasting success.