The food stamp program is the nation’s second largest means-tested welfare program; its costs have risen from $20.7 billion in 2000 to $83.1 billion in 2014. Contributing to this rapid expansion is the enrollment of able-bodied adults without dependents, which has risen from nearly 2 million in 2008 to around 4.7 million today. Benefits to these individuals and related administrative expenses cost the taxpayers around $10.5 billion per year. Welfare should not be a one-way handout. In keeping with the success of both the 1990s welfare reform and Maine’s recent food stamp work requirement, the U.S. government should require constructive behavior from able-bodied recipients in exchange for benefits. Specifically, able-bodied adult food stamp recipients without dependents should be required to take a job, prepare for work, perform community service, or at a minimum search for employment in exchange for aid and assistance at the taxpayers’ expense. This reform would save taxpayers $9.7 billion per year.
In 2015, the U.S. government spent over $1 trillion on means-tested welfare aid, providing cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to poor and low-income individuals. The food stamp program is the nation’s second largest means-tested welfare program. The number of food stamp recipients has risen dramatically from about 17.2 million in 2000 to 45.8 million in 2015. Costs have risen from $20.7 billion in fiscal year (FY) 2000 to $83.1 billion in FY 2014.
Growth in the food stamp caseload occurred particularly rapidly among able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs). These are work-capable adults between the ages of 18 and 49 who do not have children or other dependents to support. The ABAWD food stamp caseload grew by nearly 150 percent between 2008 and 2014 and has risen from nearly 2 million recipients in 2008 to around 5 million today.
While relying on taxpayers to pay for their food, government data sources show that many ABAWDs use their own funds counterproductively. Over half of ABAWDs regularly smoke tobacco; those who smoke consume on average 19 packs of cigarettes per month at an estimated monthly cost of $111.
In response to the growth in food stamp dependence, Maine’s Governor, Paul LePage, recently established work requirements on ABAWD recipients. In Maine, all ABAWDs in the food stamp program are now required to take a job, participate in training, or perform community service.
Job openings for lower-skill workers are abundant in Maine, and for those ABAWD recipients who cannot find immediate employment, Maine offers both training and community service slots. In response to the new work requirement, however, most ABAWDs in Maine refused to participate in training or community service, despite vigorous outreach efforts by the government to encourage participation. When ABAWD recipients refused to participate, their food stamp benefits ceased.
In the first three months after Maine’s work policy went into effect, its ABAWD caseload plummeted by nearly 80 percent, falling from 13,332 recipients in December 2014 to 2,678 in March 2015. This rapid drop in welfare dependence has a historical precedent: When work requirements were established in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program under President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, nationwide caseloads dropped by a similar amount, albeit over a few years rather than a few months.
The Maine food stamp work requirement is sound public policy. Government should aid those in need, but welfare should not be a one-way handout. Able-bodied, nonelderly adults who receive cash, food, or housing assistance from the government should be required to work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving aid. Giving welfare to those who refuse to take steps to help themselves is unfair to taxpayers and fosters a harmful dependence among beneficiaries.
The federal government should establish work requirements similar to Maine’s for the 4.7 million ABAWDs currently receiving food stamps nationwide. If the caseload drops at the same rate it did in Maine (which is very likely), taxpayer savings would be over $8.4 billion per year. Further reforms could bring the savings to $9.7 billion per year: around $100 per year for every individual currently paying federal income tax.
Some may argue that individual state governments, not the federal government, should choose whether to require work or training in the food stamp program. But over 90 percent of food stamp funding comes from the federal government. Since the federal government pays for nearly the entire food stamp program, it has the right and obligation to establish the moral principles on which the program operates.
Requiring work for able-bodied welfare recipients was the foundation of the successful welfare reform in the 1990s, but the idea of work in welfare has fallen by the wayside. It is time to reanimate that principle.
Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents (ABAWDs) in the Food Stamp Program
The federal means-tested welfare system consists of approximately 80 programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to poor and lower-income Americans at an annual cost of over $1 trillion. The food stamp program is one of the largest of these programs. Over the past decade, the food stamp program has grown dramatically: Spending today is around $83 billion, nearly double what it was in FY 2008.
One group that has significantly increased its participation in the food stamp program is “able-bodied adults without dependents” (ABAWDs). Under the federal definition, an individual is considered an “able-bodied adult without dependents” if he or she is between 18 and 49 years of age, is not caring for a child under age 18 or residing in a household with a child under age 18, is not physically or mentally disabled, and is not pregnant. ABAWDs gained notoriety in August 2013, when Fox News aired a documentary on food stamps featuring 29-year-old Jason Greenslate, a California resident who reported that he spends his time surfing and playing in his rock band, all the while receiving benefits from the food stamp program.
An individual ABAWD without any earned income will receive $194 in food stamps per month. Some ABAWDs have earnings that reduce their monthly food stamp benefits; others receive slightly lower benefits because they reside in multi-person homes. As a result, the average benefit per ABAWD is $169 per month (based on FY 2014 numbers). The average annual cost of benefits for each ABAWD in FY 2014 was $2,023. Overall, roughly $9.5 billion in food stamp benefits goes to ABAWDs each year. Administrative costs add approximately $1 billion more. Over 90 percent of food stamp costs are funded by the federal government.
Under the 1996 welfare reform law, ABAWDs receiving food stamps were nominally limited to three months of benefits in a 36-month period unless they were employed or participating in a work program at least part-time. However, a state could request waivers from the ABAWD work requirement if the state or areas within it had higher unemployment rates or job shortages. The ABAWD caseload grew substantially between FY 2008 and FY 2009, increasing by about one-third from 1.9 million to 2.8 million. In 2009, the Obama Administration issued blanket ABAWD work waivers as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), allowing all states to automatically waive the work requirement.
The number of ABAWDs on the food stamp rolls jumped to nearly 4 million by FY 2010 and climbed to 4.9 million by FY 2013. As of FY 2014, approximately 4.7 million ABAWDs were receiving food stamps nationwide each month.
Cigarette Smoking Among ABAWDs12
A common perception is that food stamp recipients barely have enough money to feed themselves. Many ABAWDs, however, have discretionary income, and this income is often used for counterproductive or non-essential purposes. For example, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) shows that cigarette smoking is common among ABAWDs on food stamps. As Table 1 shows, over 50 percent of ABAWDs smoked cigarettes during the past 30 days. These ABAWDs smoked almost every day, consuming on average 19 packs of cigarettes during the month. The average cost of these cigarettes was around $111 per month.
This sum equals 63 percent of the food costs for a single adult under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “thrifty food plan” (the USDA standard for an economical, nutritious diet). In other words, these individuals are spending nearly two-thirds of monthly expected food costs on