Republicans and members of the Trump administration must keep up the pressure and focus on achieving welfare reform.
When President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, many believed that the law would indeed “end welfare as we know it.” It’s what we intended when Congress created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and implemented work requirements to restore welfare to its original intent as a springboard to self-sufficiency.
These policies were intended to be the beginning of welfare reform – the beginning of a nationwide policy focused on ending dependency. Instead, President Obama launched a war on the very thing we know is most successful at achieving this goal: work.
Over the past decade, too many of our fellow citizens have fallen deeper into the welfare trap, ensnared by government policies that pay people to not work. The so-called “War on Poverty” has left our nation with record-high levels of welfare enrollment – despite a 17-year record-low unemployment rate and more than 6 million open jobs across the country.
Over the past decade, too many of our fellow citizens have fallen deeper into the welfare trap, ensnared by government policies that pay people to not work.
Many of these new enrollees are able-bodied adults with no disabilities keeping them from working. They are not the individuals our welfare system is designed to aid – the disabled, the elderly, and others who are truly in need.
There are now nearly 21 million able-bodied adults dependent on food stamps – three times as many as in 2000. Some 28 million able-bodied adults are now dependent on Medicaid, quadrupling the number of those enrolled in 2000.
This is not what we envisioned in Congress – on either side of the political aisle – when we passed welfare reform in 1996 with bipartisan support. We included work requirements in the legislation because we knew the power of work. The reforms were compassionate – they gave people the opportunity to build better lives and create their own American dreams.
We know this not only because the research has proven it, time and time again, but because we’ve seen the transformational power of promoting work firsthand.
When Maine enforced time limits on its TANF program and refocused the program on employment and job training, it drew criticism from those on the left who called the reforms uncompassionate.
But the results spoke for themselves: Over the four-year period after the reforms, enrollees with records of prior earnings saw their wages increase by 237 percent on average. Throughout the duration of the evaluation period, these people dramatically increased their total earnings from $2.6 million to $8.6 million.
In October 2014, Maine began requiring able-bodied and childless adults who were receiving food stamps to work, train, or volunteer – at least part-time – in order to receive their benefits.
The reform drew criticism from the Obama administration – but once again, the power of work emerged. Those who left the program saw their incomes, on average, more than double within the first year, offsetting any lost welfare benefits. And the number of able-bodied adults receiving food stamp benefits fell from approximately 16,000 to 1,500.
But Maine was unfortunately the exception. Instead of empowering able-bodied adults to work to lift themselves out of dependency, most states implemented work requirement waivers, allowing adults to collect taxpayer-funded benefits without being required to work at all.
Loopholes have been exploited by federal and state bureaucrats who have robbed these able-bodied Americans of the opportunity to escape welfare and create better lives for themselves and their families.
Rather than viewing welfare as a temporary safety net, many government leaders have instead implemented policies that have turned welfare into a permanent trap.
Thankfully, President Trump’s recent executive order – Reducing Poverty in America by Promoting Opportunity and Economic Mobility – delivers a welcome policy change that offers hope to those trapped in welfare dependency.
The executive order lays the groundwork for federal agencies that administer welfare to prioritize work and encourage economic mobility, particularly for able-bodied adults. It reiterates the principle that those of us who have worked within the government know all too well: Government assistance is not the answer to ending poverty and dependency. Work is.
If Congress and agency leaders deliver on President Trump’s initiative, our welfare system can return to the truly compassionate policies of its past. Its success should once again be wholly measured by the number of people moved off the welfare rolls, not the number of people trapped on them. Only then will state successes like Maine’s become the norm rather than the exception.
Mary Mayhew served for six years commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, where she spearheaded transformational welfare reform. She currently serves as a senior fellow with the Opportunity Solutions Project.