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In the 1990s, states initiated and drove welfare reform by proposing experimental or pilot projects under federal waivers. As the state administrator for Iowa’s welfare program in 1993 and as the Michigan human services director at the turn of the century, I oversaw efforts to shift the charter of the program from providing financial support to actively helping families achieve economic stability through employment. We believed a meaningful work program needed to recognize employers as customers and should mirror “real-world” expectations of personal responsibility and accountability. To achieve that vision, we coupled incentives to help people transition into work with requirements that people must be engaged in efforts to gain employment in order to receive benefits.

Recently, the U.S. House of Representatives Agriculture Committee approved the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 (H.R. 2) and advanced it to the full House. Among the changes proposed under H.R. 2, generally referred to as the “Farm Bill,” is a greater expectation that able-bodied individuals who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits must be employed, seeking employment, or taking steps to become more employable. The bill also proposes a significant increase in funding to support employment and training programs for SNAP participants.

Much like the social policy reforms initiated during Welfare Reform under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, this is an important policy issue for several reasons:

  • Most individuals and families prefer to be self-sufficient – and they sometimes need assistance or motivation to take that next step to seek a job that increase their earned income. We know this from our experience in welfare reform and continue to see it in employment and training programs now.
  • An economic imperative exists right now because we need a workforce to drive economic growth. Thousands of employers nationwide cannot find enough people to fill the jobs they currently have – let alone the ones they would need to create in order to grow.
  • Middle-skilled job openings greatly exceeds the supply of available middle-skilled workers. This offers low-skilled workers greater assurance that investing time and effort in training will result in tangible job opportunities.
  • Near-record low unemployment rates coexist with low labor participation rates between 50 and 65 percent. In addition to upskilling workers to fill middle-skilled openings, we also need to expand the labor market by coaxing more nonworking adults back into the job market.
  • The Farm Bill couples work requirements with a significant investment of new funding to support employment and training programs for SNAP participants.

This Farm Bill builds upon efforts by prior Administrations and Congresses to promote SNAP employment and training programs. Although limited and largely voluntary programs for the most part, ten states have shifted to more ambitious pilot programs in recent years. If enacted, this bill will enable states to address current economic imperatives for growth, by investing in individuals and families to gain the skills required to fill middle-skilled jobs and by expanding the work requirements to SNAP recipients who have given up or opted out of employment.

To be clear, the proposed work requirements do not apply to the majority of current SNAP recipients. H.R. 2 proposes exempting children, elderly and disabled people, individuals responsible for the care of a child under six or an incapacitated household member, and pregnant women. Additionally, a significant percentage of able-bodied adults are already working or in training that will lead to work. Those who meet the exemption or the minimum participation (work or work program at least 20 hours per week) will not lose these important benefits.

For those who are not exempt and not currently working, H.R. 2 is an important step to helping them move into the workforce and reduce their reliance on public benefits.

Doug Howard wrote a series of blogs about his experience and insights implementing welfare reform on the 20th anniversary of The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996.