Trans­form­ing lives with wel­fare work re­quire­ments

Ty­ing ben­e­fits to work im­proves re­cip­i­ents’ sense worth and dig­nity

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Sam Brown­back and Su­sana Martinez

One of Amer­ica’s strengths is that we are a na­tion of strong com­mu­ni­ties made up of peo­ple who look out for and truly help each other. Last year more than 95 per­cent of house­holds gave a to­tal of $358 bil­lion to char­ity, a record high. But more than that, Amer­i­cans want to see their neigh­bors in need per­ma­nently lifted out of poverty and move on to a bet­ter life. The road for­ward is of­ten paved with a good full-time job.

We be­lieve that gov­ern­ment should em­power cit­i­zens to live life free from the bondage of poverty and gov­ern­ment de­pen­dence. The most ef­fec­tive way to fight poverty is to fight for in­di­vid­u­als who are strug­gling to break out from un­der its heavy bur­den.

Sadly, many of our cur­rent wel­fare pro­grams dis­cour­age or of­fer dis­in­cen­tives to find­ing work and in­stead pro­mote de­pen­dency and long-term poverty. Our fel­low gover­nors have an op­por­tu­nity to change that by restor­ing job-search, vol­un­teer or work re­quire­ments in key wel­fare pro­grams. We en­cour­age gover­nors not to re­new work waivers for able-bod­ied adults with­out de­pen­dent chil­dren who are on food as­sis­tance and, in­stead, help lift mil­lions off of wel­fare and tran­si­tion them to mean­ing­ful jobs as a re­sult.

Ac­cord­ing to a Ras­mussen sur­vey, 83 per­cent of Amer­i­cans be­lieve that work is the best way out of poverty. Re­quir­ing wel­fare re­cip­i­ents to look for work, vol­un­teer in the com­mu­nity or se­cure em­ploy­ment is in­cred­i­bly pop­u­lar, en­joy­ing over­whelm­ing sup­port from both Repub­li­cans at 93 per­cent and Democrats at 81 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to the sur­vey. This over­whelm­ing, bi­par­ti­san sup­port is not sur­pris­ing, given that it was a Demo­cratic pres­i­dent and Repub­li­cans in Congress who first in­sti­tuted work re­quire­ments as part of land­mark wel­fare re­form leg­is­la­tion in 1996.

Un­for­tu­nately, this bi­par­ti­san re­form has been un­der­mined at the fed­eral level by mak­ing it far too easy for a state to sus­pend the work re­quire­ments for food as­sis­tance for some adults. The num­ber of able-bod­ied adults on the pro­gram has sky­rock­eted, in­creas­ing de­pen­dency on gov­ern­ment sub­si­dies and plung­ing the food as­sis­tance pro­gram into fis­cal cri­sis.

Food as­sis­tance cost taxpayers $80 bil­lion last year, up from just $17 bil­lion in 2000. Our na­tional food as­sis­tance spend­ing is grow­ing 10 times faster than fed­eral rev­enues and four times faster than the rest of the bud­get. This kind of as­tro­nom­i­cal growth is un­sus­tain­able. We ab­so­lutely need to pre­serve the safety net for the truly needy, but at this rate, we will strug­gle to af­ford it for any­one.

It is also con­cern­ing that the num­ber of peo­ple on food as­sis­tance climbs even as the num­ber of peo­ple in poverty declines. Worse yet, data shows that food as­sis­tance use is grow­ing faster than em­ploy­ment. Be­tween 2000 and 2013, more than six peo­ple were added to food as­sis­tance pro­grams for ev­ery new job cre­ated.

The per­sonal toll of wel­fare de­pen­dency is a ma­jor rea­son work re­quire­ments are so im­por­tant. We know that work helps peo­ple be­yond just fi­nan­cial se­cu­rity; it also im­proves their sense of worth, dig­nity and even their phys­i­cal health. We must pro­vide a path that leads to op­por­tu­nity and hope, not to de­pen­dency on gov­ern­ment pro­grams.

Restor­ing work re­quire­ments for food as­sis­tance has the po­ten­tial to trans­form mil­lions of lives by re­turn­ing our wel­fare sys­tem to the hand-up it was de­signed to be. Work re­quire­ments ben­e­fit all of us by pro­tect­ing our lim­ited re­sources for the truly needy, pro­pel­ling those in need to­ward work and a bet­ter, health­ier life and giv­ing them the hope of a brighter fu­ture. Get­ting more peo­ple to work is key to grow­ing our state economies.

The states that have re­in­stated their work re­quire­ments, such as Kansas and Maine, are al­ready see­ing very pos­i­tive re­sults. Both states saw a sub­stan­tial drop in their un­em­ploy­ment rates af­ter restor­ing their work re­quire­ments, and char­ity or­ga­ni­za­tions in Maine are en­joy­ing ex­tremely high lev­els of vol­un­teerism. These vol­un­teers are get­ting valu­able train­ing and job skills that make them more mar­ketable and at­trac­tive to em­ploy­ers, while also pro­vid­ing a valu­able ser­vice within their com­mu­ni­ties. Work re­quire­ments have helped mil­lions tran­si­tion to mean­ing­ful and re­ward­ing work since they were es­tab­lished in 1996, and states are see­ing the value of re­in­stat­ing them. While the states have un­til Sept. 1 to de­cide which way they’ll go, many are al­ready mak­ing the move, with In­di­ana restor­ing its work re­quire­ment this month, and New Mexico join­ing them shortly af­ter.

There are a lot of cre­ative ways we can help those in need with­out trap­ping them in the cy­cle of de­pen­dency and poverty, but one of the sim­plest, most proven and most pop­u­lar ways we can help peo­ple find their own feet again is to tie public as­sis­tance to a strong work re­quire­ment for those who can work. It is time to re­store greater op­por­tu­ni­ties for a stronger work­ing class in Amer­ica. Sam Brown­back is the gover­nor of Kansas. Su­sana Martinez is the gover­nor of New Mexico. Both are Repub­li­cans.

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