Almost one year ago, a report was published that highlighted astonishing findings: states were abusing federal loopholes to waive food stamp work requirements for as many able-bodied adults as possible. Despite federal law requiring most childless, able-bodied adults work, train, or volunteer at least part-time, states were using gimmicks to waive the requirement.
Recently, a new report from the Foundation for Government Accountability was published, and the results are worrisome: states are still exploiting loopholes to waive work requirements.
In January, over 1,100 jurisdictions were waived. Out of these, only 23 had unemployment rates at or above 10 percent. Congress intended for these waivers to be for areas with unemployment rates above 10 percent and expected them to be limited. But at the end of the Clinton administration, USDA created new rules that allow states to combine as many areas as possible, even those with low unemployment rates, to waive work requirements.
As a result, one-third of the country lives in an area where commonsense work requirements are waived wholly or partially, exempting 2.6 million able-bodied adults. This despite the fact that the nation’s unemployment rate is at its lowest point since 1969, and there are more than 7.5 million open jobs.
Some states are worse than others. Illinois gerrymandered 101 of the state’s 102 counties into one “area” for waiver purposes—since most would not independently qualify. But the state’s unemployment rate sits at 4.3 percent, and there are over 200,000 jobs available in the state right now.
It’s a similar story in California, where 55 of the state’s 58 counties were combined to meet waiver requirements. This wild waiver includes Sacramento and San Diego in the same economic region—despite the fact that they are 500 miles apart.
The research is clear: states will continue to abuse these waivers unless they are forced to stop. Thankfully, the Trump administration has taken steps to do just that. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is currently considering a rule that would limit waiver abuse by preventing gerrymandering, cracking down on some of the aforementioned abuse.
If these proposed rules had been in place during the last round of waiver approvals, nearly 40 percent fewer areas would have qualified. Millions of Americans would be experiencing the benefit of work today, instead of falling into the trap of government dependency.
And we know that work has very real benefits. After work requirements were adopted in Florida, the number of able-bodied adults on food stamps decreased by 94 percent. Arkansas, Kansas, and Maine all saw similar results once they implemented work requirements. Those who moved back to the workforce also saw their incomes substantially increase, with those in Arkansas seeing their incomes triple within two years.
These states are setting the example for reforms that work. Cracking down on waiver abuse and empowering able-bodied adults through work is the next step down the path of reducing dependency. It’s time to take it.
Jonathan Bain is a research fellow at the Foundation for Government Accountability.