Food stamp rolls have been growing rapidly. But what many may not realize is that participation among able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) has been skyrocketing compared to the total number of participants. That’s just one reason Congress should reform the food stamp program in the farm bill now under consideration. In just four years, the number of able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) on the food stamp rolls skyrocketed by over 2 million. While overall food stamp use grew by 53 percent between Fiscal Year 2007 and Fiscal Year 2010 (from about 26 million to nearly 40 million), it more than doubled among able-bodied adults without dependents during this time–from 1.7 million to 3.9 million–an increase of roughly 127 percent. Food stamp spending today is roughly $80 billion, double what it was in Fiscal Year 2008.
Going forward, food stamp policy should ensure that resources are going to those most in need — particularly at a time when budgets are tight for so many Americans Able-bodied recipients should be encouraged to work. This way, help is available to those who truly need it, while at the same time individuals are encouraged to do what they can to help themselves.
Congress has the opportunity now to reform food stamps as policymakers debate the farm bill. The House’s current proposal makes some steps towards encouraging work, but it is yet to be seen whether the House will maintain the work component of their proposal, or if they will fold on this important matter.
While the recession no doubt plays into the increases in food stamp participation, policy loopholes have opened the doors to boost growth as well In his 2009 stimulus bill, Obama allowed states to waive the modest ABAWD work provision (which says that after 3 months ABAWDs must work or perform some type of work activity for 20 hours per week to remain on food stamps).
With the work waivers in place, ABAWDs can stay on food stamps for an unlimited amount of time without working or preparing for work. Without a work requirement it is difficult to ensure food stamps are not going to those who could otherwise work. A work requirement acts as a gatekeeper: those who really need assistance can still get it, while those who may not really need it will be deterred, thus targeting resources to the truly needy. It also encourages individuals to move towards work, and it can provide job training and other employment help.
Self-sufficiency for able-bodied adults should be the goal of any sound welfare policy. Unfortunately, most of the government’s 80-plus welfare programs–including food stamps–aren’t focused in this direction.
Helping those in need means helping them rise above government dependence. Unfortunately, self-sufficiency seems to be kicked to the bottom of the list all too often when it comes to reforming the nation’s broken welfare system. It’s time for Congress to realize that helping individuals means a hand-up, not merely a handout.