Pennsylvania: the reigning champion of the welfare game

Pennsylvania has mastered the art of rigging a waiver system under the federal food stamp program, the Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program (SNAP), to preserve the cycle of government dependence for able-bodied recipients. Despite unemployment at historically low levels, Pennsylvania has managed to keep roughly 230,000 able-bodied recipients on food stamps, according to a recent study by the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA). Other states play the welfare game too, but Pennsylvania is one of the worst offenders, the FGA says.

“The state combined 59 counties, some of which had unemployment rates as low as 3.9 percent, to create one ‘area’ and waive work entirely,” said Nik Horton, research director for FGA. “Then, the state created ‘civil divisions,’ randomly grouping townships, boroughs, and cities together.”

“Conveniently, despite the fact that some of these areas had unemployment rates as low as 4.17 percent, these new, combined areas qualified for waivers,” added Horton

Using arbitrary boundaries to waive work requirements is yet another example of the Left’s goal of maximizing dependency, even as employers are desperate to find workers, according to PMA President & CEO David N. Taylor.
“In the manufacturing sector alone, there are thousands of high paying jobs available to qualified workers,” Taylor said. “Keeping the able-bodied dependent on welfare kills the incentive to look for or train for work. The longer people are on the sidelines, the more their skills degrade and the harder it will be for them to return to the workforce. Looking for work, learning new skills, or even just volunteering is a healthier outcome for able-bodied, working-age adults with no dependents. People need the dignity and sense of purpose that comes from work.”

The waiver policy has its origins in changes made during the Clinton administration to the food stamp rules used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers the program. Under the old rules, the abled-bodied would be excused from the work requirement if the unemployment rate in an area was above 10 percent, or if a state could show a lack of sufficient jobs in an area. The Clinton change said that if a state’s unemployment rate was 20 percent over the national average then it could qualify. This in theory means that if the national unemployment rate were one percent, the state would qualify for waivers with a 1.2 percent rate.

The Obama administration and many state governments then used a variety of gimmicks and exceptions to help weaken work requirements and boost participation to its highest level in history in 2013 — more than 47.6 million people, according an analysis by the U.S House Committee on Agriculture.

“Since then, the rolls have contracted,” the analysis said, “but not by as much as might be expected, given the improvement in the economy since the last recession. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), as the food stamp program is formally known, still had 40.7 million recipients as of January — nearly nine years after the recession officially ended. That is up almost 55 percent from 2007.”

In Pennsylvania, Nik Horton cites the area surrounding the city of York. Unemployment in the surrounding township is well below the threshold needed to qualify for waivers. The city of York is above.
“What they did to keep those townships under waivers is that they pooled them with York and magically met the exact number needed to qualify,” Horton said.

Nationwide, the number of waivers is similarly distorted with today’s booming economy. There are roughly 6.6 million jobs available right now, but most able-bodied childless adults on the program aren’t required to work.
Overall, 35 percent of Americans live in an area with no food stamp work requirements. State data also reveals that just 1.8 million of the nearly 4.7 million able-bodied childless adults on the program in 2018 are subject to these requirements.

A remedy exists in the farm bill the U.S. House passed in June. It would put work requirements back into the program and eliminate the practice of combining jurisdictions to expand the waiver qualification. Each county or city would have to qualify on its own. A Senate version of the bill, which also passed in June, contains no substantive food stamp reforms.

Congress missed its September 30 deadline for approval of the bill in part because of the House/Senate dispute over food stamps.

One conservative economist predicts that the Senate version will prevail.

“They will give the conservative members of the House political cover with some language in the bill that purports to rein the program but will have little impact,” predicts Vincent Smith, Director of Agriculture Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

One factor on the side of the House language, Smith said, is that Speaker Paul Ryan, who is retiring at the end of this session, wants to leave a legacy of enhanced incentives for the poor to find work.
The costs of the program are massive. Nearly 80 percent of the approximately $900 billion farm bill will go to cover food stamps.
In the end, Big Government is the only winner from keeping able-bodied, working-age adults with no dependents on welfare for the rest of their lives. The recipients lose, the taxpayers lose, and employers lose.