Trump Administration's Reforms Could Make Welfare Work Again
For decades, America’s various welfare programs have discouraged low-income adults from working and trapped millions in poverty.
For decades, America’s various welfare programs have discouraged low-income adults from working and trapped millions in poverty. But the Trump administration is now working to fix the nation’s welfare programs by implementing commonsense reforms that will encourage people to find jobs and attain self-sufficiency.
On April 10, President Trump issued an executive order instructing the Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Health and Human Services Labor, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, and Treasury Departments to review and institute recommend safety net changes.
The recommended reforms are included in the order’s “Principles of Economic Mobility.” Among the nine principles are prioritizing benefits for the truly needy, streamlining wasteful and duplicative programs, and enhancing work requirements.
“Since its inception, the welfare system has grown into a large bureaucracy that might be susceptible to measuring success by how many people are enrolled in a program rather than by how many have moved from poverty into financial independence,” the executive order reads. “This is not the type of system that was envisioned when welfare programs were instituted in this country.”
If we were to judge America’s various welfare programs based on how many individuals enrolled, we would find them to be a resounding success. According to government statistics, there are more than four million individuals enrolled in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, 42 million recipients in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and 74 million individuals enrolled in Medicaid. Yet, in spite of the trillions in benefits these programs provide, the poverty rate has barely budged since the War on Poverty began in the 1960s.
Instead of continuing to expand these massive, failing government programs, Trump’s plan is to help people find employment — a proven, sustainable method way to reduce poverty. According to the U.S. Census, less than 3 percent of individuals who work full-time live in poverty, and those who work part-time are, compared to unemployed Americans, half as likely to live below the poverty line. Providing welfare recipients greater incentives and opportunities to work would enormously improve their chances of escaping poverty and providing a better life for their families.
Trump’s executive order builds on the landmark welfare reforms passed by President Clinton and Republicans in the 1990s. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 established commonsense work requirements and capped the amount of time individuals can receive benefits in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. These changes helped nearly nine million individuals get back to work and out of poverty. Between 1996 and 2016, the share of children living in poverty fell from 10 percent to less than 5 percent as a result of these reforms. For children in single-parent homes, the poverty rate fell from 20 percent to under 10 percent.
Unfortunately, Clinton’s successors failed to apply these successful reforms to other welfare programs. In some cases, they were watered down substantially. For instance, President Obama helped many states waive TANF work requirements during his tenure, leaving thousands of adults to languish on TANF’s rolls.
Despite these setbacks, many state policymakers worked during the end of the Obama years to create much-needed, forward-thinking policies. Some states successfully showed how welfare work requirements help to lift families out of poverty. In 2014, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) strengthened his state’s work requirements for TANF after former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) weakened them. Shortly thereafter, the program’s beneficiaries found work and many experienced increased wage growth. Individuals that moved off welfare experienced on average a 247 percent wage increase as they entered the workforce.
After seeing the positive benefits of reforming TANF, many states now want to replicate that success with other welfare programs. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker (R) enacted legislation to increase work requirements for the state’s food assistance program, from 20 hours per week to 30 hours.
Kentucky, Indiana, and Arkansas recently introduced work requirements for able-bodied Medicaid recipients to ensure the program has enough resources to care for those truly in need. According to Kentucky state officials, this will shift 95,000 healthy adults out of the program and save an estimated $300 million, providing more funding for vulnerable adults and children in need of home- and community-based medical care.
The Trump administration should continue to work with these states and others that are eager to lend a helping hand to individuals seeking to find work. Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Utah, and Wisconsin are currently seeking approval from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to implement work requirements of their own.
These changes are overwhelmingly supported by the American people, who understand that a well-paying job is the best anti-poverty program. And Trump’s executive order shows his administration is committed to helping states, community leaders, and employers provide more opportunities to the less fortunate.
[Originally Published at The Hill]