Thanks to the November midterms, Republicans now control 29 state legislatures—the most in nearly 100 years—and hold 31 governorships. Now, emboldened by the GOP wave and their own re-election last year, several governors are taking aim at one of the party's favorite targets: food stamps.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a potential 2016 candidate, wants to require people receiving food stamps or unemployment insurance to undergo drug testing. He’s also proposed limits on the types of food people can buy with food stamps. Maine Governor Paul LePage, whose re-election was widely seen as a referendum on welfare after he cut the public-assistance rolls by half, declared in his inauguration speech, “No more welfare handouts.” Ohio Governor John Kasich spent much of his inaugural speech discussing "personal responsibility," saying, “It's a sin not to help someone who needs it, but it's equally a sin to continue to help someone who needs to learn how to help themselves.”
Some states are already squeezing their food-stamp recipients by reinstating federal work requirements. Written into the 1996 welfare law, the requirements cut off able-bodied Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients without children after three months if they have not found 20 hours per week of work or a training program. Thirty-seven states with high unemployment rates qualify for a federal waiver in fiscal 2015, but eight of those states—Delaware, Maine, Texas, Colorado, Indiana, New Mexico, Ohio and Wisconsin—are all partially or completely reinstating work requirements for certain beneficiaries. In six of those eight states, the governors making that decision are Republicans, and they're portraying the revival of work requirements as a reversion to normal, pre-recession law. By declining the waivers, Republican governors can strengthen their conservative bona fides—making it seem as though their states are too prosperous to need SNAP, while also implicitly condemning federal spending.
Since 2008, public assistance rolls have ballooned. The number of people receiving SNAP benefits jumped from 26 million in 2007 to more than 40 million in 2010. In 2014, an average of 46.5 million people received SNAP benefits—more than one in seven people in the country. According to the Congressional Budget Office, that increase is primarily due to the jump in poverty during the recession: The SNAP program is an automatic stabilizer, kicking in as the economy falters. The recession may be officially over, but long-term unemployment persists, and those who are on public assistance typically take a few years start reaping the benefits of a recovery.
In the states where governors are reinstating work requirements, the hardest-hit areas will struggle to comply. In Maine, for example, where LePage reinstated work requirements in October, a paper mill in Bucksport that closed in December has left more than 500 people unemployed. Now, the three-month clock is ticking before those people are kicked off food stamps. Meanwhile, in Ohio, Governor John Kasich began partially reinstating the work requirements last year, but the only counties exempted were in mostly white, Appalachian regions, says Kate McGarvey, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Columbus. According to a complaint filed by poverty advocates, about 62.54 percent of Ohio’s food stamps recipients in June 2014 were white, but in the counties where Kasich waived work requirements, 94.18 of recipients were white. (McGarvey says that the state used out-of-date unemployment data to determine which counties would be exempt, and that the urban counties where the work requirements are reinstated now have higher unemployment rates.)
Republican governors say that reinstating work requirements will help residents get back on their feet. Declining the waiver would “protect our limited resources for those who are truly in need and who are doing all they can to be self-sufficient,” LePage said. Indiana Governor Mike Pence, who plans to reinstate work requirements this spring for over 65,000 people, described it as “partnering with [citizens] in their own success.”
But the work requirements don’t mean that people are actually working. In Wisconsin, for example, those who are unable to find work will have to participate in a job-training program in exchange for food stamps. According Sherrie Tussler, the executive director of Hunger Task Force Milwaukee, that program consists of 80 hours per month of online courses. “What I’m not seeing are the jobs,” Tussler says. “Show me the employers who will hire these people.” Data on job placement programs is hard to come by. According to a 2011 Government Accountability Office report, “little is known about the effectiveness of most programs.” Plus, states aren’t required to offer training programs, and only a handful of states have committed to providing them. That means a childless, non-disabled person who is willing to work or participate in job training could be kicked off food stamps after three months, simply because neither are available.
The SNAP program is far from a massive drain on state funds: the federal government funds all food stamp benefits (which added up to $74 billion in 2014). States are only responsible for half of the program's administrative costs. “This is where ideological agitation against welfare becomes clear—there is no reason not to accept these dollars,” Garrett Martin, executive director of the Maine Center for Economic Policy, says.
The losers in this scenario are some of America’s poorest citizens: The SNAP recipients subject to work requirements make an average of 19 percent of the poverty line, or about $2,200 per year.
This article has been updated.