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Real Welfare Reform Starts with the States, Not the Federal Government

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The burden falls primarily on the states to implement meaningful changes.

The workfare changes of the 1990s helped millions of Americans climb out of poverty, and there is currently another push to implement more work requirements for social welfare beneficiaries. Since the White House issued a new executive order that mandates changes in how federal welfare agencies set their goals, the House and Senate have also taken up proposals to further solidify work-oriented goals. However, the federal government can only do so much; the rest is up to the states.

Angela Rachidi, scholar of poverty studies, writes that changes are in the works, but the authority to make such changes is limited in its scope. The law either must be changed, or the states must take the initiative.

The House and Senate are currently discussing changes to SNAP and TANF with similar themes as outlined by the president’s executive order. The proposed SNAP changes require states to engage more recipients in work activities, and the TANF discussion draft places more emphasis on getting participants into employment and helping them stay there.

It is not yet clear if Congress will actually be able to pass these reforms, but even if it does not, the states have the power to get the ball rolling. But one of the obstacles potentially blocking that is the way in which SNAP benefits are funded.

For example, SNAP allows states to decide whether they require work in exchange for benefits for most work-able recipients (with the exception of childless adults who are mandated to work). Yet, many states decline to enforce work requirements because of limited funding for employment services and child care. Recipients trading SNAP benefits for work could also mean fewer federal dollars coming into the state, creating a kind of perverse incentive for states to only add enrollees rather than help them leave SNAP for employment.

The Trump administration has signaled that it is willing, though, to allow states to impose Medicaid work requirements, but the responsibility to fund such programs will fall onto the states themselves and not the federal government. TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) already allows the states a great deal of leeway in implementing changes, and some states like Wisconsin have begun doing just that.

A good example of this is in Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker recently signaled his intent. Wisconsin has requested a Medicaid waiver to implement work requirements (though it has not yet been approved), and last month Walker signed nine bills which, among other things, dedicate new resources to provide rehabilitation for those who test positive for drug abuse, tests an earned income credit payment that goes out throughout the year rather than only at tax time, dedicates funding for education and training for SNAP recipients, and requires that housing assistance recipients develop an employment plan.

Governor Scott Walker stated that “We want to help those in need move from government dependence to true independence through the dignity of work. We believe welfare should be more like a trampoline and less like a hammock.”

While other states and the federal government have yet to act, Wisconsin is taking the lead in experimenting with a new way of helping the poor. The states act as policy laboratories, and the successes and failures can help guide other states and the federal government for future anti-poverty programs.