Today, the food stamp program is one of the largest welfare programs in the federal budget. And of the nearly 40 million people enrolled, 20 million of them are able-bodied adults. This surging enrollment has led to record-high spending, topping out at nearly $80 billion just a few years ago.
The good news is that there’s a proven way to reduce dependency and improve lives at the same time: work requirements. And one state is showing once again just how effective work requirements can be, as detailed in a brand new study from the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA).
In 2015, as one of his first major policy moves as governor, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson instructed his welfare agency to let the state’s work requirement waiver expire. Under federal law, able-bodied adults without dependents are expected to work, train, or volunteer at least part-time if they want to receive food stamps. But until Governor Hutchinson took office, Arkansas had never enforced this requirement statewide.
Starting in January 2016, that changed. Able-bodied, childless adults would be expected to work part-time if they wanted to stay on food stamps. Here’s what happened.
First, enrollment dropped by 70 percent within a year.
As soon as the requirement was in place, childless adults started dropping off the rolls. Within three months, more than 8,000 had left the food stamp program. And within a year, enrollment dropped by a whopping 70 percent.
This is good news because ultimately, every dollar spent on these able-bodied adults is a dollar that can’t go to truly needy Arkansans. Freeing up these resources means there’s more money for the truly needy, education, and public safety.
Second, state revenue increased, and taxpayers saved big.
After Arkansas’ welfare reform, able-bodied adults went back to work and contributed an estimated $1.7 million in income taxes—an increase of more than 454 percent. Within two years, they were contributing $2.3 million, more than seven times the amount when they were still on welfare.
Even better, taxpayers are saving an estimated $28 million per year because of the program’s lower caseloads, which means more money that can go to help the truly needy.
Third, enrollees’ incomes tripled on average, more than offsetting lost benefits.
Arkansans who left welfare saw their wages more than triple within the first two years, more than offsetting their food stamp benefits and leaving them better off than they were before.
The results out of Arkansas—which are consistent with results in Kansas and Maine—are instructive for policymakers everywhere. If policymakers are serious about reducing dependency and improving lives, work requirements are the obvious answer. And voters overwhelmingly agree.
But here’s the problem: a lot of states have used gimmicks and loopholes to obtain work requirement waivers, exempting many or all able-bodied adults from commonsense requirements. This is robbing resources from the truly needy and robbing able-bodied adults of better lives.
Thankfully, the Trump administration is working to crack down on this waiver abuse and make sure more Americans have the opportunity they deserve. But states can and should help by making sure able-bodied adults, across all welfare programs—including Medicaid—get the hand up they need.
Because with record-low unemployment and over seven million open jobs, there has never been a better time to get Americans back to work.