Reducing Government Dependency Is A Good Thing

Kristina Ribali | Senior Coalitions Director, Foundation for Government Accountability

Reduction in government dependency is something we should celebrate, not lament.

When someone graduates from high school or gets a promotion, we don’t say they’ve lost educational opportunity or their former position. We congratulate them on moving forward. We celebrate their success, right? Shouldn’t we also consider moving from welfare to work a success?

A recent breaking headline for the Associated Press on March 24, 2015 read:

“9,000 Mainers lose food stamps under new rules.”

The article associated with the headline outlined the recent welfare reforms under Maine’s Governor Paul LePage.

More than 9,000 Maine residents have been removed from the state’s food stamp program since Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s administration began enforcing work and volunteer requirements late last year, officials said.

The headline from the AP reads as if moving 9,000 people off of dependency is a negative occurrence. The use of the word “lose” immediately conjures up images of suffering, of loss. This is intentional, and those of us who believe that moving from dependence to self-sufficiency is a positive step should push back against headlines and false media narratives such as this.

Before the reforms, Department of Human Services spokesman David Sorenson said there were about 12,000 able-bodied, childless adults receiving benefits. That number has now been reduced to 2,680 in March of 2015; a decrease of over 77 percent.

Any reduction in dependency on the government should be celebrated, especially a reduction of this magnitude which is truly phenomenal. These are people who were once relying on the government to feed themselves and their families and now, thanks to bold reforms, are becoming more independent. As a society, we should be championing such reforms and celebrating these success stories of people moving forward.

We all want to help lift our fellow Americans out of poverty, and so we should be careful we don’t intentionally or inadvertently encourage staying poor either.

“If you’re on these programs it means you are living in poverty and so the more that we can help incentivize people on that pathway to employment and self-sufficiency the better off they’re going to be,” says Maine DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew.

And by helping themselves, they also help society. It is absolutely a step in the right direction, and has more than economic benefits too. Requiring someone to work or volunteer in order to receive assistance also increases participation in community programs and offers volunteers more access to future potential employers.

“This can be a great asset to our communities because there will be a whole new population of volunteers that can raise the capacity of our local non-profits,” says Sarita Field, Community Impact Manager at United Way of Eastern Maine.

Many Maine non-profits have seen an increase in the number of volunteers helping in their programs since the SNAP reforms were implemented.

While on the whole, dependency on food stamps in America continues to rise and workforce participation declines, Maine is reversing that trend.

According to the USDA, there are currently more than 46 million Americans receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits; an increase in more than 40 percent since 2009.

There are myriad reasons for the growth, but those reasons do not include the economy. In fact, in states like Illinois, unemployment rates are dropping yet food stamp dependency is increasing:

“In Illinois, food-stamp enrollment increased 2.5 percent to 2.08 million between January 2013 and December 2014, an increase of about 50,000 people in a period when the state’s unemployment rate fell from 9.1 percent to 6.2 percent.”

A primary reason food stamp enrollment has exploded is the lack of work requirements now being enforced in the states. Currently, 43 states have at least partial waivers for work requirements; that’s up from just seven states in 2006.

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In many states food stamp dependency has increased by over 100 percent since 2004 and has trapped an additional 31 million Americans in poverty. If every state restored work requirements and time limits to match the federal baseline, 4.8 million fewer Americans would be trapped in food stamp dependence.

Restore work requirements and you’ll not only save taxpayers more than $7.1 billion annually, you’ll restore dignity and hope for millions of Americans who are currently trying to survive on what the government believes they’re worth. Let’s start celebrating people graduating from poverty rather than lamenting their escape from a life of reliance on public support. Rather than letting the media control the narrative about those in poverty being permanently dependent let’s start giving everyone the tools to be truly successful. That’s something to be proud of.

Kristina Ribali is the Senior Coalitions Director for the Foundation for Government Accountability. FGA promotes better lives by equipping policymakers with principled strategies to replace failed health and welfare programs.

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