Indiana will cut tens of thousands of its poorest people off of the food stamps roles beginning next spring, the state announced. Gov. Mike Pence (R) has decided to join seven other states in reinstating work requirements for food stamps despite being eligible for a federal waiver from those rules for the coming fiscal year.
Federal rules require able-bodied, childless people who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for more than three months a year to demonstrate that they are working or attending a job training program for at least 20 hours a week. But those rules can be waived during times of high economic strain when the work requirements cannot reasonably be fulfilled. Nearly every state requested and received such a waiver during the Great Recession. But a growing number of states have begun reinstating the work rules even though the Department of Agriculture has said their unemployment rates are still high enough to justify waiving the rules.
The state estimates that 65,000 people will be affected by Pence’s change, according to the Indianapolis Star. Previous similar moves in Kansas, New Mexico, Maine, and other states have left tens of thousands of people without access to food stamps. The network of food charities that picks up the slack when hungry people are underserved by government programs is already overstretched around the country, according to the people who run those charities.
There is ample evidence that tying anti-poverty aid to work requirements renders the programs ineffective exactly when they are most needed. When the economy tightens and work becomes scarce, more people find themselves in need of safety net programs. Work requirements deprive those programs of the flexibility they need to function, and in recessions they fail to keep up with spikes in demand, leaving needy families in the lurch. The welfare reforms of the 1990s were praised by both political parties for years, but they have eroded the country’s system for helping impoverished families to the point where a record 74 percent of poor families with children did not receive federal aid from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program in 2010.
Most of the states that have retreated prematurely from food stamps waivers — Indiana, New Mexico, Ohio, Texas, and Maine — have Republican governors. (Delaware Gov. Jack Markell (D) and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) have also declined statewide waivers despite being eligible.)
Pence’s rationale for the move is that it will help push people who would otherwise collect benefits without trying to work. The administration official in charge of the relevant state agency explained Indiana’s decision in a letter to the Department of Agriculture as “an opportunity to help improve the skills of our fellow Hoosiers and advance their prospects for meaningful employment, while at the same time establishing a pool of better-prepared candidates for the Indiana workforce.” Gov. Sam Brownback (R) used a similar argument to justify ending waivers in Kansas last year when the state was still eligible.
But making it harder to fill the fridge doesn’t make it easier to find a job. There are currently two job-seekers for every job opening nationwide. Those are steep odds for people making good-faith efforts to find work, but the two-to-one ratio is also a dramatic improvement from recent years when the ratio was up around five-to-one.
The same conservative mentality toward the unemployed recently lead North Carolina to slash its unemployment insurance system so deeply that it now no longer qualifies as a valid jobless aid system under federal rules. Gov. Pat McRory (R) has claimed that the move helped the state’s economy. But the reality is that the state’s unemployment statistics improved because tens of thousands of people who had been looking for work prior to the cuts simply gave up and stopped being counted. Before the cuts, the employment rate for people between 25 and 54 years old had been rising steadily in North Carolina. It has begun a “pronounced” decline since, analysts at the Economic Policy Institute have found. (In addition to liberal think tanks, conservative economic pundit Jim Pethokoukis at the American Enterprise Institute has criticized McRory’s move and the Republican rhetoric about it.)
Indiana’s similar maneuver with food assistance funds is likely to produce a similar failure to achieve the Pence administration’s stated goals. The most recent statistics on the job market in the midwest shows that there are nearly two million unemployed people hunting for just over a million jobs across the region, to say nothing of the tens of thousands who have given up their formal job searching and are no longer counted as unemployed.
Still, Pence’s policy compares favorably with what his neighbor Gov. John Kasich (R) is doing in Ohio. Kasich retained the SNAP work waivers for 16 of the state’s 88 counties but reinstated work rules in the counties that house the majority of the state’s minority population. Food stamps recipients in the counties that continue to enjoy waivers are 94 percent white, according to a coalition of groups that filed a civil rights complaint against Kasich in August.
In one Ohio county that lost its waiver, the Star reports, more than 2,500 people lost food stamp benefits. A third of them had physical or mental health issues that make it hard for them to work, an Ohio food charity official told the newspaper.