I grew up in a large working-class family in central South Dakota. My parents worked hard, every single day. So did I, and so did my brother and my sisters.
Even with that hard work, there were times when we needed help from government to get by. I am who I am today because of the experiences of both welfare and hard work. Government assistance can help meet people’s basic needs— we all know that. But on its own, welfare alone means surviving just barely, on the edges.
Welfare can meet basic short-term needs, but education and work – yes, education and work – they deliver long-term hope, dignity, purpose and opportunity.
That brings me to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, otherwise known as SNAP or “food stamps.” I know this program well, from both personal and professional experiences. Currently, under federal law, able-bodied non-seniors – people between the ages of 18 and 50 – without children at home are required to work, train, volunteer or go to school for 20 hours a week to receive their benefits.
To most Americans, these work requirements are common sense, just as they were when they were passed into law in 1996 in a bipartisan manner. Work requirements for able-bodied individuals are common sense because work isn’t punishment, work is opportunity.
Despite the law, over the years some states have utilized loopholes to trigger waivers. Many of these waivers water down the work requirements I’ve mentioned, and today one-third of our nation lives in an area with no work requirements.
Despite a record-high seven million job openings, we have 2.7 million SNAP recipients who can work, but do not. There is a better way.
A few years ago, because of state waivers, too many Arkansans were not experiencing the kind of dignity and opportunity that comes from holding a job. So Arkansas changed course. They put their work requirements back into place – and the results were impressive.
People who left the program because they didn’t work or didn’t train or didn’t volunteer ended up better off than they were on welfare. Necessity pushed them into a job path that brought them more resources than welfare alone could ever provide.
Now, with all of those people moving off of welfare and into the workplace, they were earning money, and the state saw their revenues go up. That kind of success can and is happening elsewhere. When Maine reimplemented work requirements, incomes of former enrollees more than doubled and caseloads declined by 90%. These results are a testament to what hard work can do.
USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue should be commended for his efforts to do just that through a proposed rule – making sure that food stamp recipients are encouraged and rewarded for their work.
I want to make it very clear: these actions are not about taking aid away from areas that are struggling with high unemployment – there are clear exceptions for those areas. Instead, this is about prompting more states and more citizens to experience the successes that have been experienced by Maine and by Arkansas.
Every one of us does better when we are pushed, when we are moved past our comfort level. Growth requires effort. That is true in athletics, that is true in academics, that is true in raising children, and it is true in all other areas of life as well.
Denying millions of able-bodied SNAP recipients that growth, also denies them a chance at a better future. In states where work requirements have been reinstituted, a clearer path out of poverty has reemerged. We have to do that elsewhere. We have to do that everywhere.
Work has dignity. Work is opportunity. Work is an American value.
As ranking member of the panel that oversees food stamps, I’m looking forward to making our policies better match our values.