Governor-Elect John Bel Edwards is thinking about waiving the requirement that able-bodied adults without dependents get a job, receive job training or perform public service as a condition of receiving food stamps. To waive this requirement would be a mistake. Here’s why.
In 1961, Alderson Muncy was in dire circumstances. A drop in the nation’s demand for coal had cost Muncy his job at a West Virginia mine. He lived in the poorest part of a poor state and had a wife and 13 children to feed.
The poverty in West Virginia touched the hearts of people across America. Muncy and his wife, Chloe, became the first recipients in the U.S. of food stamps. Handed $95 in food stamps, they used just $20 worth. Months later, they started chipping in for the cost of the food stamps after Alderson Muncy got a temporary job. Within six years they were off food stamps altogether after Alderson Muncy found work with the state highway department.
The Muncy family exemplified the founding goal of the food stamp program. The program was never meant to produce a population that is dependent on government assistance. Food stamps are supposed to be temporary, short-term assistance: a bridge, not a parking lot.
Consider this. The food stamp program cost us as a nation $68 billion in 2010. This year, the cost was $73.8 billion even though the national unemployment rate has steadily dropped in five years. It isn’t sustainable, especially when you consider that the federal government has more than 70 anti-poverty programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care and social services to the low income. We’re not doing enough to help people thrive on their own.
A Democratic president and a Republican-led Congress enacted a much needed reform in 1996 by requiring able-bodied adults without dependents to work at least 20 hours a week or participate in job training in order to receive food stamps. If you can’t find a paying job or a training program that works for you, then you can do volunteer work or take an unpaid job. This reform was designed to help people help themselves.
Again, we’re only talking about able-bodied adults without dependents. We’re not talking about anyone younger than 18. We’re not talking about anyone older than 50. We’re not talking about the mentally ill or those physically unfit to work. We’re not talking about a mother with a hungry child in her arms.
The Brookings Institute puts it bluntly: The only way out of poverty is to work. Yet work rates for men in the U.S. are spiraling downward.
Louisiana received a waiver to the work requirement for food stamps during the 2008 recession. Earlier this year, we wisely decided to let the waiver expire, following the lead of more than a dozen other states. I hope we continue to keep that waiver tossed out the window. We don’t need it.
Kansas dropped the waiver and saw unemployment rates decrease. Maine did the same thing, and volunteerism skyrocketed.
I’m not telling people to starve. I’m telling them to grasp the hand extended to them, get a boost up the ladder and then let that hand go so the next person can be helped. I’m telling them that we don’t want them to remain mired in poverty. I’m telling them to embrace the American dream and help devote limited resources to the old and the sick and the very young. Thrive so others less fortunate can survive.
John Kennedy is Treasurer for the State of Louisiana.