Hollywood actor Hugh Jackman once said: “Giving people a hand up, not a handout, is the way forward.” The Trump administration seems to agree, having announced new rules for the nation’s food stamp program that could help people transition faster from welfare to work.
The new rules, set to take effect in April, take aim at a loophole that some states, such as Illinois and California, are using to keep food stamp recipients hooked on the program.
Under current law, able-bodied adults (aged 18 to 49) without dependents may receive benefits for a limited time, unless they find work. After someone has received three months of benefits in a three-year period, he or she must begin working at least 20 hours per week to keep receiving assistance.
States can request a waiver of those time limits if an area suffers from high unemployment or poor economic conditions. Not unreasonable, but statehouses have been gaming the system, mixing good labor markets with bad in order to exempt the greatest number of people and keep the benefits flowing. In fact, the administration found that “counties with an unemployment rate as low as 2.5% were included in waived areas.”
Under the new rules, states will have a harder time getting their waivers approved unless there’s an obvious need.
As a result, the administration argues, people will move more quickly from dependency on government to the dignity of work.
“We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand but not allowing it to become an indefinitely giving hand,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a recent op-ed.
Not everyone is on board with the new rule, though. Some of the nation’s leading progressive voices are quite unhappy. A writer for The Nation claimed that “millions of Americans (are) being deliberately cast into hunger by the federal government.” The Week howled that the president’s actions “will make the lives of many Americans worse, and they will kneecap the very economy he boasts so much of resuscitating.”
But while today’s progressives have panned the new food stamp rules, yesterday’s progressives were supportive of the goals.
When then-President Bill Clinton signed his welfare reform act into law in 1996, he said: “First and foremost, it should be about moving people from welfare to work. It should impose time limits on welfare…It (work) gives structure, meaning and dignity to most of our lives.”
Then-Sen. Joe Biden also spoke highly of work requirements for welfare, saying on the Senate floor: “The culture of welfare must be replaced with the culture of work. The culture of dependence must be replaced with the culture of self-sufficiency and personal responsibility. And, the culture of permanence must no longer be a way of life.”
It’s impossible to tell whether progressive critiques today are rooted in policy or politics. No matter which, the fact is that the new rules bring welcome change to a program that needs it. With these rules in place, people will still be able to receive the help they need, but not so much that it fosters dependency and inhibits initiative. That’s a change we should all support.