The U.S. Department of Agriculture appears to be on a mission to recruit food stamp participants. Radio advertisements, Spanish telenovelas (soap operas), and reaching across the border to partner with Mexico are some of the highlights of their advertising campaign.
This, along with massive growth in program spending, indicates critical need for reform. While the House Agriculture Committee’s recently passed farm bill does take a step to get food stamp spending under control, the proposal misses a very crucial element of reform: work requirements.
While the farm bill may sound like it focuses on farm policy, about 80 percent of the funding for the massive bill goes to food stamps (now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP). SNAP is the fastest growing government welfare program, and today, about one in seven Americans participates in SNAP. However, the food stamps program does basically nothing to encourage work among its recipients.
Work requirements are overwhelmingly supported by the American public. In a recent Rasmussen poll, over 80 percent of those surveyed said that welfare recipients should be required to work. Work requirements are not only popular; they are also effective.
The welfare reforms of 1996 did much to encourage self-reliance and saw much success. Because of the work requirement at the heart of the reform, welfare caseloads shrunk by more than half in just five years after the law’s implementation. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 1995, 4.54 million families received what was then known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (renamed Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, after the reform). Today, fewer than 2 million families receive benefits from TANF—a 58 percent decline. Prior to welfare reform, the caseload had never decreased significantly.
Critics of the reform argue that caseload reduction is meaningless if those leaving the rolls remain in poverty. However, in the few years after the reforms, child poverty also declined significantly. For black children, the rates dropped to their lowest levels in U.S. history. The same occurred for single-mother families (who are the primary beneficiaries of TANF), with poverty rates declining from 41.9 percent in 1996 to 33 percent in 2000.
Despite the current recession, the poverty rate for single-mother households is still lower than it was in 1996. This is especially true of black and Hispanic mothers, whose poverty rates have declined more precipitously than their white, non-Hispanic counterparts.
Regrettably, the work requirements in TANF have been watered down since 1996, and just two weeks ago, the Obama Administration issued a new policy to gut this crucial element of the reform law. Restoring TANF’s work requirements and changing the current food stamps program to include solid work requirements for able-bodied recipients would do much to help those in need achieve dependence and solidify self-reliance as a cornerstone of American society.