A provision of House Bill 318, signed into law last month by Governor Pat McCrory, returns North Carolina to President Bill Clinton’s 1996 policy requiring that able-bodied adults meet some minimal work requirements in order to continue receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, commonly known as food stamps.
President Clinton’s goal twenty years ago was to “end welfare as we know it” by transforming “a broken system that traps too many people in a cycle of dependence to one that emphasizes work and independence.” October’s vote in the General Assembly split along party lines, with Republicans voting in support of reinstating President Clinton’s 1996 reforms and Democrats opposing them.
The bipartisan Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, the federal legislation President Clinton signed into law, limited the receipt of federal food stamp benefits for able-bodied adults (between the ages of 18-49 and without dependent children) to three months over a three year period if they were not working, participating in education or job training, or some combination of the two for at least 20 hours per week.
Volunteering one’s time at a charitable organization also counts towards fulfilling the work requirement.
Food stamp recipients under 18 years of age and 50 years or older (the vast majority of recipients) were exempted from the work requirements, as was anyone who was pregnant, physically or mentally unfit for employment, or caring a for a child or incapacitated household member. According to 2012 data provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency that administers the program, 48% of SNAP recipients are children (age 18 or younger), 9% are senior citizens (age 60 or older), and 10% are disabled adults under 60.1
As of 2014, in North Carolina, 1,575,676 people received food stamps with an annual cost to taxpayers of $2.4 billion.2 According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, the average recipient in our state receives about $36 per month in food stamps.
These Clinton-era “workfare” reforms proved extremely successful. Within just a few years, welfare caseloads — which had never seen a significant decrease — dropped by over 50% and employment rates among welfare recipients increased dramatically. Child poverty rates declined significantly, with roughly 3 million fewer children living in poverty by 2003 than in 1995 — including 1.2 million fewer black children — marking the lowest level of black child poverty in the nation’s history.3
In spite of the dramatic results, the Obama administration gutted the workfare requirements for receiving extended food stamp benefits by allowing states to apply for waivers. “Welfare reform was very popular with the public,” commented Robert Rector, Senior Research Fellow at the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society Domestic Policy Studies and a chief architect of the Clinton-era welfare reforms. “However, in July 2012, the Obama Administration issued a bureaucratic edict proposing to overturn the work requirements that formed the core of the 1996 law. This action by the Obama Administration clearly violated the intent and letter of the legislation.”
House Bill 318 prohibits DHHS from seeking waivers for able-bodied adults without dependent children who haven’t met these minimal work requirements, effectively reinstating the workfare reforms of President Clinton here in North Carolina. The process will be phased-in, with the most urbanized counties that have the lowest unemployment rates seeing the change first.
“There was a very strong feeling in both houses of the General Assembly that the work requirement for able-bodied people is something that we needed to have,” said Senate President Pro-Tem Phil Berger in an October 16 interview with WUNC Public Radio. “It’s a provision that was widely supported and is something from a policy standpoint is the right thing for North Carolina to do.”
The Foundation for Government Accountability determined that 210,000 childless adults currently receive food stamps in North Carolina, and a DHHS county-by-county projection found that just half of those will be subject to the workfare requirements — meaning that 126,000 to 168,000 able-bodied adults “could be freed from the welfare trap” that keeps people in poverty.4
“The food stamp program is one of the largest and fastest-growing welfare entitlements in the federal budget,” the group concluded in an August 2015 report. “One key cause of this out-of-control spending is the recent explosion of enrollment among able-bodied childless adults … The elimination of work requirements has resulted in more people remaining trapped in government dependency for far longer than they otherwise would, has kept more people in poverty, has stymied economic growth, and has contributed to a massive expansion of the welfare state. Reinstating work requirements for able-bodied childless adults receiving food stamps has proven profoundly successful in decreasing food stamp enrollment, returning more people to work, and even increasing volunteerism.”
An overwhelming majority of Americans support these able-bodied adult workfare requirements. A 2012 Rasmussen poll found that 83% of American adults favored a work requirement as a condition for receiving welfare aid. Just seven percent (7%) opposed such a requirement, while 10% were undecided.5
- United States Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service: “Characteristics of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Households: Fiscal Year 2012“
- United States Department of Agriculture’s Program Accountability and Administration Division: “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program State Activity Report Fiscal Year 2014“
- “Why Congress Must Reform Welfare,” Robert Rector, December 4, 1995.
- Carolina Journal Online: “N.C. Reinstating Work Requirement For Food Stamps,” September 9, 2015.
- Rasmussen Reports: 83% Favor Work Requirement for Welfare Recipients, July 18, 2012.