No More Free Lunch
This column by ACRU Senior Fellow and Policy Board member J. Kenneth Blackwell was published June 15, 2017 by Townhall.
While the Left promotes fake scandals, President Donald Trump proposes real change. Congressional Republicans should keep their eyes on the ball and enact his reforms into law.
President Lyndon Johnson unleashed “the Great Society” on America. It treated welfare as a right and created a culture of dependency. Expanded benefits encouraged illegitimacy, discouraged education, punished work and undermined families. Entire communities suffered as families dissolved and values deteriorated.
Seeing political advantage in making more people dependent on government, Democrats ignored the ill consequences. But President Ronald Reagan, who pressed welfare reform as California governor, took up the challenge in Washington. He was advised by Bob Carleson, who led the California effort.
A Democratic House limited President Reagan’s ability to make changes. Then came the GOP Congress elected in 1994. Carleson helped draft a new style of reform that passed in 1996. It changed the dynamic of welfare in key ways, one of which was permitting the states to require the able-bodied to work in exchange for their monthly benefit check. The legislation helped reduce welfare rolls —- by about 50 percent in just five years —- save taxpayer dollars and make recipients independent.
Now, President Trump is following in the Gipper’s footsteps. With welfare costing $1.1 trillion last year, most paid for by the federal government, the administration has proposed tightening eligibility requirements for several programs and hopes to cut outlays by $274 billion over the coming decade.
President Trump’s initiative revives the federal workfare requirement. Wrote the president to Congress: “Work must be the center of our social policy.” The purpose is not to punish the needy, but to ensure that they are taken care of. Wasted welfare “takes away scarce resources from those in real need,” he explained.
The president targeted Food Stamps, now formally the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In 1996, Congress required work or its equivalent for cash benefits. But the Obama administration wanted to expand welfare dependence and allowed states to waive a provision that Congress intended to be mandatory. Analyst James Bovard notes that the administration even ran campaigns to recruit SNAP recipients. In 2000, 17 million people received Food Stamps. The SNAP rolls are now at a staggering 44 million, at a cost of $71 billion annually.
Congress needs to act. The Trump administration would require states to toss in a buck for every four spent by Washington. Moreover, it would be conditional upon the states requiring their able-bodied to earn their benefit. Explained the head of the Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney: “If you’re on Food Stamps and you’re able-bodied, then we need you to go to work.”
It turns out that work works. In 2014, Maine added a requirement that able-bodied Food Stamp recipients find a job, get job training or volunteer at least 24 hours a month. Within a year the number of people getting Food Stamps dropped from more than 13,000 to barely 2,700. That’s a cut of 80 percent.
At the start of 2017, thirteen Alabama counties began mandating their able-bodied adult SNAP recipients to work, seek work, or get approved job training. By May, the rolls had dropped by 85 percent. Statewide, since January, the number of able-bodied adults on SNAP has declined by 55 percent.
Those of us who understand human nature are not surprised by this outcome. The idea that giving away “free stuff with no strings attached,” in this case, food, to anyone who signs up for it results in a whole lot of people signing up is pretty basic reasoning, except perhaps at some Ivy League institutions.
The administration expects its reforms, including workfare, will save taxpayers roughly $193 billion over the coming decade. Equally important, noted Mulvaney, “We’re no longer going to measure compassion by the number people on these programs. We’re going to measure compassion by how many people we can get off these programs.”
Which is why the administration shouldn’t stop with Food Stamps. Work requirements should be expanded to programs such as public housing. Even if Congress passes workfare for Food Stamps, work requirements will apply to only three of the more than 80 federal welfare programs.
The administration should move to consolidate overlapping programs and block grant them to the states. Welfare is an issue that belongs at the state level. The Carleson Center for Welfare Reform has designed a program that would give states greater flexibility, provide a continuing incentive to innovate, and cap federal expenditures.
Finally, the U.S. needs to get back into job creation. More jobs need to be generated for all Americans. That’s why the president is pushing serious deregulation, proposing tax reform and challenging environmental extremism. The result will be more opportunities for all.
Some people need federal help. But it always should be the last resort, delivered cost-effectively by institutions closest to those in need.
Moreover, there should be reciprocity. It is only fair to request that those who receive benefits work to earn them. It’s the Biblical model. And it is supported by nine out of every 10 Americans.
President Trump’s workfare proposal demonstrates that he is busy doing what is important for Americans. Congress should join him.