Most states waiving work requirements for food stamps, despite improving job market

By Brooke Singman
Published August 06, 2015

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Most states still are waiving work requirements for those on food stamps, raising concerns that despite an improving job market the Obama administration is feeding government dependency -- and all at the expense of taxpayers.

Forty-four of the 50 states have to some degree eased work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps: 30 states grant waivers state-wide, while another 14 issue partial waivers in areas of high unemployment.

"The explosion of enrollment on SNAP of able-bodied adults without requiring work is a recipe for long-term dependency, and is hurting the country's economic recovery," said Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA) Josh Archambault, whose group obtained the numbers.

Supporters of waiving work requirements counter that there still aren't enough jobs out there.

"Work requirements are the wrong diagnoses for the wrong problem," Joel Berg, executive director of the New York Coalition Against Hunger, told Fox News. "States should have the greatest flexibility possible to help people move into living-wage work.

Having 'one size fits all' cut-offs will make it more difficult for people to get and keep work."

But fiscal conservatives say the waivers waste millions -- if not billions -- of taxpayer dollars. The total cost of SNAP has increased dramatically, from $54 billion in 2009 to $74 billion in 2014.

Since 1996, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been able to grant waivers for areas with high unemployment. The practice surged after the recession, as the 2009 stimulus allowed states to waive -- for 18 months -- the requirement that able-bodied adults with no dependents find work within three months of receiving benefits.

Despite the unemployment rate being cut nearly in half since 2009, the numbers from the FGA show nearly every state still opts to partly or fully waive work requirements. Likewise, food stamp enrollment has dipped only slightly after surging to historic levels in 2013 -- from about 47.6 million in 2013 to 46 million now.

States now are required to renew their waivers annually -- governors have until Sept. 1 to decide whether to do so for fiscal 2016, and most are -- raising concerns about fueling government dependency.

Archambault said a quarter of enrollees have been on the program for more than eight years, and half the enrollees have been on for four years or more.

"Instead of partnering with enrollees to get them back on their feet, the Obama administration has been complicit in keeping them on SNAP without helping them to become work-oriented," Archambault said.

In 2013, a House bill was introduced that would have eliminated the USDA's waiver authority, restoring federal work requirements in every state. The bill, which the Obama administration opposed, passed the House but died in the Senate.

Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., the sponsor of that legislation, told Fox News that while SNAP provides important support, "it's not meant to keep you at the bottom."

"It's in our nation's best interest to identify ways to get Americans back to work by making programs like SNAP more efficient and accountable," he said in a statement.

A spokesman with the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service told Fox News that SNAP recipients still are expected to seek and accept work, if they are able -- though most states do not make that a requirement.

"We are focused on putting people back to work and reducing SNAP participation and costs in the right way," spokesman Jalil Isa told Fox News.

Governors are the ones responsible for deciding whether their state will accept a federal waiver, and executives of both parties are accepting them.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, however, has bucked the trend and completely reinstated work requirements -- and says it's working.

"Republicans need to embrace developing a way to get people out of poverty -- not just talking about cutting poverty programs," Brownback told Fox News last week. "It will work. It does work.

And it's working here."

In 2013, Brownback's announced he would allow the waiver to expire. Today, able-bodied adults in Kansas with no dependent children between the ages of 18 and 49 are required to work at least 20 hours a week, or be enrolled in a federally approved job training program in order to keep their benefits.

"Getting an education, a job, and working on family structure is the way out of poverty," Brownback told Fox News. "The longer you keep people on public assistance without work, the harder it is to get them off of that public assistance."

Brownback in March signed a $13.5 million agreement with the USDA to expand their employment training program for people with SNAP benefits.

"We need to get people off the programs as fast as we can, and back into the dignity of their own job," the governor said.