How states can move people from welfare to work, sidestepping Team Biden’s ban


The Biden administration is blocking states from moving people from welfare to work. The federal government has banned state work requirements for food-stamp recipients since March 2020, and the Biden team is continuing this counterproductive restriction through at least April. Fortunately, there’s a work-requirement workaround that states should quickly pass in 2023.

Congress enacted the work-requirement ban at the pandemic’s start, and it stays in place as long as the executive branch maintains the public-health emergency. The Biden administration is set to extend the emergency for the 12th time, and no wonder: It’s faced sustained pressure from the media and activists to continue it precisely because it means keeping millions more people on welfare programs, including food stamps.

The consequences are clear across the economy. Job openings remain near a record high, while the labor-force-participation rate is still much lower than it was pre-pandemic, and it’s fallen for the past four months.

But 25 states want to help end this crisis, which is why they have food-stamp work requirements waiting to go into effect at the end of the emergency. The rest of the country has renewable waivers going beyond the emergency’s end — New York’s runs until Oct. 1, 2023 — meaning such states don’t want people to work to receive this aid.

food stamp
The federal government has banned state work requirements for food-stamp recipients since 2020.

These work requirements cover able-bodied adults without dependents — people between 18 and 49 years old who can and should work as a condition of receiving taxpayer support. Yet so long as the public-health emergency is around, they can stay home, and most do. Nationwide, nearly 4 million able-bodied adults without dependents on food stamps are not required to work.

Policymakers in pro-work states are hoping the Biden administration won’t extend the public-health emergency again, so their work requirements can go back into effect. Yet that hope has been dashed repeatedly over the past year. Instead of hoping for the best, they should plan for the worst — and enact a different kind of work requirement the federal ban doesn’t cover.

States should use their flexibility under federal law to assign these food-stamp recipients to “employment and training” programs. These individuals would be required to sign up for job coaching, job-search services, workforce-development initiatives and other efforts that would help them find work. Most important, they could fulfill their obligation by re-entering the workforce. Under federal law, states can apply this mandate to the exact population covered by their traditional work requirement — making Washington’s ban a dead letter.

Some states are already taking advantage of this workaround, with significant benefits. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis is defying the Biden administration with an employment and training mandate covering roughly 240,000 people. And last year, Texas assigned 280,000 able-bodied adults to employment and training programs. Tellingly, only 50,000 participated, with many if not most of the rest going back to work and leaving food stamps altogether. That’s exactly the point of a work requirement: to move people from dependence to independence.

food stamps
Work requirements cover able-bodied adults without dependents — who can and should work to receive taxpayer support.

More states are following suit. Kansas lawmakers passed this policy in April, overriding a veto by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. About 15,000 Kansans must work, train or go back to school to get taxpayer support. And Arkansas is in the process of implementing a new employment and training mandate, too.

All states the federal ban affects should embrace this workaround, and so should the rest, with their less-robust or nonexistent work requirements. But they shouldn’t stop there. Using employment and training assignments, states can go even further than the traditional work requirement.

Under federal law, employment and training mandates can apply to people up to age 59, instead of just 49, as well as people with greater flexibility to work, such as able-bodied adults with kids in school. If every state passed the strongest possible mandate, 10.6 million food stamp recipients would be covered — slightly more than the number of open jobs nationwide.

It’s the single most powerful tool to get people off this ostensibly short-term welfare program and into long-term employment and success.

State leaders should act swiftly. Governors can use this tool unilaterally, though writing it into law is a safer bet. That’s why legislatures should pass employment and training mandates as soon as possible in the new year.

The alternative is to blindly hope that the Biden administration will ignore the media, activists and its own far-left ideology to let the public-health emergency expire. That hasn’t happened yet, and it’s hard to see that reality changing any time soon. If Americans are going to move from welfare to work, it will surely be the result of state leadership.

Tarren Bragdon is chief executive officer at the Foundation for Government Accountability, where Scott Centorino is senior fellow.


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