Where the Work-for-Welfare Movement is Heading

By: - January 25, 2018 12:00 am

Sunny Larson, left, and Zak McCutcheon gather provisions at a food bank in Maine. Some state lawmakers are proposing new work requirements for people receiving food stamps.

Robert F. Bukaty, The Associated Press

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story contained an error in the “Work Status” graphic. It was updated on 1/26/2018 to correct the percentage in the category of “not working for other reason.” We regret the error. 

This is Part Four of the State of the States 2018 series.  

As President Donald Trump and Republican leaders in Congress set out to impose tougher restrictions on welfare, their conservative allies across the country are trying to help them accomplish their mission, state by state.

Republican governors and state legislators are moving ahead with proposals that would make it harder for people to get and keep welfare benefits and restrict what benefits they get. Measures already have been floated in about a dozen states, and, policy analysts say, what happens in states in the coming year will serve as an indicator of what’s to come nationally.

Some state lawmakers are proposing new work requirements for people receiving food stamps under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, and for people receiving government-subsidized health insurance under Medicaid. Others want welfare recipients to pass drug tests. Many are looking to crack down on fraud by requiring recipients to prove their eligibility more frequently and with better documentation. Efforts to ban the purchase of junk food and soda with food stamps are also ongoing.

In Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker last week called a special session for lawmakers to consider a package of draft legislation that would impose more restrictions on food stamps and Medicaid. His proposal and many others are driven by the philosophy that government benefits should only be temporary, and that people should earn the benefits if they can.

“Governor Walker has long believed that welfare should be more like a trampoline and not a hammock,” said Amy Hasenberg, Walker’s press secretary, in a statement to Stateline.

But Democratic leaders and welfare advocates say the restrictions Walker and others are pushing would strip people of the support that is allowing them to scrape by, and drive them deeper into poverty.

“These programs work,” said David Lee, executive director of Feeding Wisconsin, a statewide network of food banks. “They help people get the nutrition and health care they need in order to live, and work, and support their families. And that’s what we need to focus on.”

The movement to restrict welfare programs is being driven by conversations at the federal level. But Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a left-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C., said much of the change in the coming year will occur as states experiment with new ways to deliver their programs.

What happens in states, she said, “may be a bellwether for things to come down the road nationally.”

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Jen Fifield

Jen Fifield reports on rural issues for Stateline, She has covered government in Maryland and Arizona. She has won several regional journalism awards, and was recently a fellow in the Ravitch Fiscal Reporting Program at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She graduated with honors from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.