August marks the 20th anniversary of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. This bipartisan welfare reform legislation signed by President Bill Clinton on Aug. 22, 1996, dramatically transformed the nation’s welfare system, implementing strong welfare-to-work requirements and incentivizing states to transition welfare recipients into work.
The law, which created Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and replaced the 61-year-old Aid to Families with Dependent Children, also implemented stricter food stamp regulations.
The 1996 law allows states to suspend the time limit in areas with high unemployment; Georgia is one of 22 states that waived the time limit during the economic downturn. With the turnaround, states that waived time limits for aid to low-income individuals through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – “food stamps” – have begun to reinstate those time limits.
Beginning in 2016, Gwinnett, Hall and Cobb counties became the first three Georgia counties to restore SNAP time limits for able-bodied adults without dependents. They are only allowed to receive SNAP benefits for three months in three years unless they meet work requirements.
To continue to receive food stamps beyond the time limit, these individuals must work at least 80 hours per month, participate in qualifying education and training, or participate in “workfare” – unpaid work through a special state-approved program. For workfare, the amount of time worked depends on the amount of benefits received each month. They can also participate in a SNAP training program.
How has the end of the waiver affected the SNAP rolls in these three counties? According to the Division of Family and Children Services, 6,102 able-bodied adults without disabilities were receiving food stamps when the counties’ waiver ended in January. By April, when the three-month deadline took effect, that number had shrunk to 2,590, a 58 percent decrease.
Even accounting for an uptick in the job market or additional recipients replacing those who dropped off, the decline is impressive. Gwinnett County saw a 64 percent drop in recipients in this category; Cobb saw a 56 percent decline and Hall saw a 37 percent decline. The decline continued in May: a remarkable 60 percent decline over January’s total.
In 2017, another 21 Georgia counties will end the recession-related waiver on food stamps. Ending welfare assistance is not just about saving taxpayer dollars. The goal must be to focus aid on those who truly need help and restore the dignity of work to able-bodied adults.
In October 2015, U.S. Rep. Tom Price of Georgia led a House Budget Committee hearing on poverty. Larry Woods, who heads the Raleigh-Durham Housing Authority and is a product of public housing, bemoaned the low expectations this nation has of welfare recipients:
“Our current system is broken, plain and simple. And it’s broken because our approach is flawed. Representatives, it’s not about throwing more money at this problem. It’s not about pulling money away from this problem. It’s about implementing policies that actually provide a positive exit strategy for getting people out of the safety net. Right now, there is no exit strategy. We have spent much of our time trying to make sure that the net is there but we’ve lost focus on what happens next when someone enters that system. We are simply warehousing people in our programs; there’s no focus on getting people in, up and out.”
We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.
Benita Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation,