Louisiana’s move to limit food aid to able-bodied adults without dependents who do not work, train to work or volunteer is an idea that all of this year’s gubernatorial candidates should embrace.
By Jan. 1, regulations for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which handles what were once known as food stamps, will again require able-bodied recipients between ages 18 to 49 to work no fewer than 20 hours a week, to be enrolled in a federally approved job training program or to do approved volunteer work. Otherwise, they stand to lose benefits worth $194 monthly.
The state is closing a loophole promoted by President Barack Obama’s administration as part of a general loosening of eligibility requirements for government benefits. Those changes, along with the president’s economic policies, have driven the country’s workforce participation to its lowest rate in 38 years.
More people are seeking to get these benefits and forego work. Because of the president’s failed leadership on the economy, even Americans who want to work are having a tougher time finding jobs. With national SNAP childless adult enrollments and spending almost tripling since 2008, Louisiana is among 20 states that have returned to tighter eligibility requirements. (Louisiana previously waived only some of these rules.)
Waiving these eligibility rules creates tremendous incentives for more people to be dependent on government. Nationally, only a quarter of childless SNAP recipients work, with the average stay in the program increasing from one-quarter to two years after the waivers were put in place. Nearly a quarter of the participants now stay in the assistance program at least eight years.
Other states that resumed tighter eligibility requirements typically saw large enrollment drops and increases in participants doing useful paid or volunteer work. Louisiana expects to see roughly a two-thirds decline in recipients as a result of raising the bar for eligibility.
Critics who point out that, as the program uses only federal funds, the state sees no financial gain from this reform are mistaken on two accounts.
First, Louisianans’ federal taxes pay for it. Without this extra tax burden, they could keep more of what they earn — and possibly spend more of their wealth in the local economy, a plus for the state’s tax revenues.
Secondly, research amply demonstrates that reduction in one kind of cash benefit program that encourages more people to work leads to reduced use of other social welfare programs, saving the state money and increasing its tax take through more employment and economic activity.
Nor should the state stop here with welfare reform that encourages industry and thrift. For example, instituting a family cap on recipients of Family Independence Temporary Assistance Program dollars — that is, not providing extra payments for additional children born to enrolled women — would discourage more dependency and decrease state spending by an estimated $24 million a year.
And were Louisiana to join a dozen other states in testing potential FITAP recipients for drug usage, the small savings would be dwarfed by the moral benefits of steering people into more productive, unimpaired lives.
Gubernatorial candidate and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle has spoken in general terms about welfare reform, noting that “Louisianans need more people pulling the wagon and fewer people riding in the wagon.”
U.S. Sen. David Vitter has shown willingness to tackle this issue by co-sponsoring the Welfare Reform Act of 2011, which would have saved $2.7 trillion in its first decade. His campaign promotes a comprehensive agenda for welfare reform at the state level.
Among major candidates, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and state Rep. John Bel Edwards have not fully addressed the harm done by overly generous welfare benefits. Voters should weigh this issue accordingly when making their gubernatorial choice.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political of political science at LSU Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics (http://www.between-lines.com) and, when the Louisiana Legislature is in session, another about legislation in it (http://www.laleglog.com). Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.