President Trump’s new executive order on welfare reform has laid the groundwork to get more Americans back to work while protecting and strengthening the safety net for the truly needy. Federal agencies must take advantage of this opportunity to roll back harmful Obama-era policies that have trapped families in dependency and cost taxpayers billions.
Right now, America combines near-record-low unemployment with near-record-high welfare dependency — the result of state-level eligibility exemptions, federal loopholes and policies that put work on the back burner. Many of these policies created incentives for able-bodied adults to sit on the sidelines — even though there is good, well-paying work to be done. The resulting safety net isn’t a safety net at all — it has entrapped able-bodied adults in dependency and threatened resources for the truly needy.
But welfare reform can change that. And the Trump administration has just given agency leaders a road map to do so.
The executive order, signed Tuesday afternoon, lays out principles to encourage economic mobility through work — a tactic that we’ve seen succeed in states across the nation. It calls for a strengthened work requirement for able-bodied adults, building off the requirement established in the 1996 bipartisan welfare reform that requires able-bodied adults on food stamps to work, train or volunteer for at least 20 hours per week.
Despite evidence that work requirements work — cutting time spent on welfare in half, doubling incomes and moving adults into over 600 diverse industries — the Obama administration approved waivers for those requirements in most states, citing high unemployment and severe job shortages.
What happened when states no longer required able-bodied adults to work to receive benefits? Predictably, the number of able-bodied adults on food stamps skyrocketed, more than tripling since 2000, while the cost to taxpayers went up fivefold.
Even though unemployment has since rebounded to near-record lows and more than 6 million jobs are open nationwide, these Obama-era waivers are still in place and many states continue to operate expanded welfare rolls under them.
Federal agencies should follow the White House’s guidance to change that by declining to renew these waivers and strengthening the work requirement for able-bodied adults, returning the food-stamp program to the law’s original bipartisan intent and rolling back the unsustainable spike in welfare recipients.
Based on the experience of states that reinstated work requirements, this common-sense reform would move millions of able-bodied adults from welfare to work while saving taxpayers billions — ensuring the safety net is in place for those who truly need it.
The good news doesn’t end there. Because the executive order spans multiple programs — including Medicaid and food stamps, among others — agency leaders have the opportunity to bring much-needed change to all welfare programs. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services must continue to approve states’ waiver requests to implement work requirements for able-bodied adults in Medicaid, as more and more states follow the example set by Arkansas, Indiana and Kentucky. Agencies should look to eliminate loopholes that allow automatic enrollment into welfare programs without asset tests or other tests of need, and should look to implement anti-fraud initiatives to crack down on welfare fraud and preserve limited resources for the truly needy.
The Trump administration hasn’t been shy about its desire for welfare reform — and rightly so, given out-of-control enrollment and spending that has resulted in a massive dependency crisis. This executive order provides a pathway to a welfare system that protects the needy without trapping the unwary.
History and experience tell us that if federal and state agencies follow through on the reform principles the president has laid out, we can protect the safety net for the needy while filling millions of open jobs and creating billions of dollars in federal and state budget savings.
That would be a good day’s work.