States aren't waiting for Washington to require poor residents to work

Feeding America's most vulnerable children
Feeding America's most vulnerable children

President Trump and Republicans in Congress are setting the stage to make more low-income Americans work for benefits. But a growing number of states are already doing just that.

Many of the states' efforts focus on the food stamp program, which already requires some recipients to work.

Currently, able-bodied adults ages 18 to 49 who don't have minor children must work or enroll in a training program for 20 hours a week. Otherwise, they can only receive benefits for up to three months every three years.

But states can request waivers of the work requirement for areas where unemployment is at least 10% or there is an insufficient number of jobs, as defined by the Department of Labor.

Typically, about one-third of the nation lives in a place where the work requirement is suspended, though that share skyrocketed during and just after the Great Recession.

Some governors and lawmakers say that their states are now in better financial shape so they don't need to apply for waivers. Instead, they say these food stamp recipients should start moving toward independence by getting jobs or enrolling in training programs. Plus, they argue, with near record-low unemployment, their states have a labor shortage that low-income residents can help fill.

Kentucky, which had a statewide waiver until 2016, is rapidly moving to reimpose work requirements in all but eight of its counties. By the end of May, recipients in 112 counties will be subject to the three-month time limit on benefits if they don't work, up from 20 counties at the end of last year.

Lifting these waivers will impact most of the 87,000 Kentucky adults in the program who don't have dependents, according to the left-leaning Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

"Since jobs are still hard to find in significant parts of the state, this change will result in loss of food assistance and harm to economic activity in already-struggling local communities," Dustin Pugel, a policy analyst at the center, wrote in a blog post.

Related: House GOP bill would lock the poor out of food stamps if they don't work

Nearly four dozen counties and three cities meet the criteria to easily gain federal waiver approval, he noted.

There are a number of ways that Kentuckians on food stamps can meet the work requirement, said Kristi Putnam, program manager for Kentucky HEALTH. In addition to holding jobs, recipients can go to training programs, take GED or vocational classes or volunteer. That's why state leaders felt it was appropriate to stop asking for waivers, she said.

Kentucky officials are working with local businesses to develop more job and training opportunities for food stamp enrollees. The state is also gearing up to implement work requirements in its Medicaid program later this year.

In West Virginia, state officials will start phasing out the number of counties with work requirement waivers later this year. Currently, food stamp enrollees in only nine out of the state's 55 counties are subject to the time limit. Going forward, only counties designated as having a "labor surplus" -- more workers than available jobs -- will be able to apply to suspend the work requirement.

But in October 2022, West Virginia will no longer be able to apply for a waiver for any county, no matter the economic circumstances, according to a bill passed by the state legislature and signed by Governor Jim Justice last month.

This will not only hurt many low-income residents, but it could harm businesses in many areas, said Seth DiStefano, policy and outreach director at the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy.

"In some communities, SNAP is literally keeping grocery stores open," he said.

West Virginia's Department of Health and Human Resources did not return calls seeking comment.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker last week signed a series of bills that are part of his Wisconsin Works for Everyone welfare reform plan. The bills aim to apply the work requirement to parents of school-age children, to increase the number of hours food stamp recipients must work and to explore developing employment plans for those living in public housing. Many of the proposals will require either federal approval or a change in federal law.

Related: Trump signs executive order pushing work requirements for the poor

"We want to help those in need move from government dependence to true independence through the dignity of work," said Walker, who ended waivers for able-bodied adults without dependents statewide in 2015.

At least a dozen states are also interested in the Trump administration's willingness to require Medicaid recipients to work, a historic change in the program. Three states -- Kentucky, Indiana and Arkansas -- have already received federal approval to do so.

The states' actions come as President Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress look to overhaul the nation's safety net system. Last week, Trump signed an executive order directing federal agencies to promote employment for those on public assistance.

Also, on Thursday, Republicans introduced the House farm bill, which calls for expanding the number of food stamp recipients who are subject to work requirements. The legislation would require those in their 50s to have jobs or enter training programs and also would extend the mandate to parents with school-age children, starting in fiscal 2021.

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