There’s no universal set of American values, but an emphasis on hard work and self-sufficiency is commonly embraced in politics and one that comes into play when the public is considering its support for welfare programs that help the poor.
The value underlying the existence of those welfare programs is that we all live in a society. To some extent, we have each other’s back, and we won’t let our neighbors suffer unbearably.
That’s all to say that as Gov. Paul LePage’s administration moves to enforce federal work requirements for certain food stamp recipients, the policy shift should espouse a little of both philosophies.
LePage’s administration on Wednesday said it wouldn’t renew a federal waiver that allows about 12,000 Maine food stamp recipients — about 5 percent of Maine’s crop of recipients — to bypass work requirements written into federal law.
Since 1996, federal law has required “able-bodied adults without dependents” (ABAWDs, in federal bureaucratese) who receive food stamp assistance to fulfill work requirements for 20 hours per week. They can meet those requirements by working a conventional job, participating in a work training program, volunteering or participating in “workfare” — often a state-subsidized job placement with a business or nonprofit organization.
Those adults — ages 19 through 49 — who don’t fulfill the requirements can receive no more than three months of food stamp benefits every three years.
But waivers from the requirements are common. Maine is one of 32 states with waivers in effect that cover the entire state. Ten others have partial waivers.
Eligibility for waivers is connected to labor market conditions — basically, states can qualify for waivers when unemployment is high — which explains the prevalence of waivers after the Great Recession. But this coming federal fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1, is likely the last year during which Maine will qualify for a full waiver from the food stamp work requirements.
The American Association of SNAP Directors projects that only three states — California, Nevada and Rhode Island — will qualify for full waivers after that. While individual Maine regions could qualify for waivers, the LePage administration is simply getting a one-year head start on implementing requirements that will be in effect for most able-bodied adults without dependents on SNAP starting Oct. 1, 2015.
It’s reasonable and beneficial to institute a work requirement for the small segment of adult food stamp recipients without children or other dependents. A job training program can improve a participant’s job prospects and earnings potential; volunteer experience can translate into marketable job skills; and a subsidized job placement offers participants a chance to gain work experience.
By instituting a work requirement, however, the state needs to make those opportunities available — especially when private-sector jobs aren’t plentiful. A new partnership between the state departments of Labor and Health and Human Services that assesses welfare recipients’ work skills and matches them up with training and work opportunities will prove helpful. The LePage administration might also need to expand the range of training available and institute a subsidized employment program to ensure the food stamp recipients subject to the work requirements can actually fulfill them.
Clearly, instituting work requirements correctly won’t be a money saver for the state — at least in the short term. But the change can prove a beneficial one that helps low-income adults who want to work gain experience and marketable skills that improve their chances of breaking out of poverty.