Cooper: Returning to welfare-work mandates

Carol Johnson, a Chattanooga Housing Authority partner, speaks to graduates and their families at an Environmental Job Training Program graduation ceremony in 2012.

Few people would argue with the federal government assisting the elderly and children who cannot help themselves. But those who can work and won't? That's another story.

Nearly 90 percent of Americans believe able-bodied adults who receive welfare assistance should be required to work or be trained to prepare for work.

Now, nearly a decade after President Barack Obama allowed states to roll back such mandates in the midst of the Great Recession, states are again beginning to require those eligible workers without dependents to go back to work or take strides toward doing so.

When the former president made it easier for non-disabled adults to receive benefits as part of his 2009 stimulus package, millions who could work decided not to. They may have previously worked or not worked. They may have worked but felt the work they could get was beneath their training and pay. They may have worked but could only find part-time work and chose not to take it. So they never went back.

Labor force participation for men hit an all-time low. It was what skewed the employment numbers during the Obama years. Those not seeking work were not included in the unemployment statistics. As a result, food stamp recipients grew from roughly 28 million in 2008 to 47.6 million in 2013 but have not fallen significantly despite the country nearing what is claimed to be "full employment."

However, Alabama, Georgia, Kansas and Maine have implemented limited reforms toward returning the able-bodied to work, and figures show those reforms are reducing the number of claims in food stamp enrollment.

* Alabama required that able-bodied adults with no children in 13 counties either find a job or participate in work training in order to continue receiving assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, which is the former food stamp program).

Between Jan. 1 and May 1, 2017, the number of SNAP recipients in those counties fell from 5,538 to 831, according to

  • Georgia instituted a similar program in a limited number of counties.

By the end of three months, according to the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, the number of adults receiving benefits in three counties fell 58 percent. In 21 additional participating counties, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, SNAP participation dropped 62 percent.

  • Kansas implemented work requirements in 2013 and saw a 75 percent decline in SNAP use.

The state, according to the Foundation for Government Accountability, also saw 60 percent of former SNAP users find employment within 12 months and increase their income an average of 127 percent per year.

  • Maine began the practice in 2014, requiring either 20 hours per week in a work program or a mere six hours a week in community service. SNAP participation fell 14.5 percent between January 2014 and January 2015.

The state showed that a group of 7,000 residents who left the program increased their income from a combined $3.85 million in the third quarter of 2014 to $8.24 million in the last quarter of 2015.

In the first attempt to put any teeth into what had become a series of runaway assistance bills over the previous 30 years, the then-new Republican House forced Democratic President Bill Clinton to pass a welfare reform bill in 1996.

By 1995, nearly one in five children in the U.S. was on what was then called Assistance for Families and Dependent Children. Within five years of reform of the program, caseloads of what was now called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families dropped by 50 percent. Employment and earnings by low-income single parents increased by 50 percent. Employment of single mothers with less than a high school education increased by two-thirds, employment of never-married mothers increased by 50 percent, and employment of single mothers between the ages of 18 and 24 about doubled.

Most importantly, poverty among single mothers and among black children fell to all-time lows.

Bills introduced in Congress this year, such as the Welfare Reform and Upward Mobility Act and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Reform Act, would enact nationally provisions similar to ones in place in the aforementioned states.

They would, among other things, create additional opportunities to satisfy work requirements through a supervised job search, allow state-run work activation programs to assist SNAP recipients in finding jobs, reduce the number of SNAP participants exempt from the work requirement and provide state flexibility for exempting individuals from the work requirement.

The Trump administration needs to enact numerous reforms to correct the excesses of the past eight years, and the return of work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents (or training or public service) is one of those. States, fortunately, have led the way, and we hope other states will follow the lead of those requiring recipients to have some skin in the game.