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Bidenomics: Food Stamps for 'Work-Capable Recipients' to Cost Taxpayers Billions, Watchdog Reports

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The American Left’s relentless assault on Founding principles and basic human dignity has many dimensions.

For instance, a report issued earlier this month by Matthew D. Dickerson of the Economic Policy Innovation Center showed that liberals in government, from the administration of President Joe Biden to state-level officials, have adopted policies designed to keep as many downtrodden Americans as possible dependent on federal food assistance, thereby depriving relief recipients of paths to self-sufficiency in a program that already costs taxpayers billions.

Dickerson, director of budget policy at EPIC, offered an alternative: the dignity of work.

Specifically, the EPIC report called on Congress to strengthen work requirements associated with the federal program commonly known as food stamps. The 2008 Farm Bill rebranded that program as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in order to “fight stigma,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Coupled with the Biden administration’s earlier unilateral increase in food stamp benefits to 21 percent above inflation, SNAP’s weakened work requirements will cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars in the next decade.

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This, of course, is not a new issue. Liberals and conservatives have long debated the desirability, effectiveness and legitimacy of federal entitlement programs.

The EPIC report simply revealed where that debate now stands and how much ground conservatives have lost in recent decades.

For instance, the report began with a principled defense of work in general as beneficial for individuals, families and communities. That seems obvious. So the fact that Dickerson believed he needed to make that argument suggests that the opposite view prevails in government.

Furthermore, the report showed that both federal and state officials have helped able-bodied adults evade SNAP’s work requirements.

“Consequently, the food stamp program has fostered a culture of dependency,” the report read.

The report concluded by urging Congress to strengthen work requirements associated with SNAP.

While in some ways the report harked back to public-policy debates from the 20th century, the issue of work requirements for food stamps, understood in the context of a polarized climate marked by intense anti-establishment sentiment, took on a new and much deeper meaning.

The EPIC Report 

Allowing able-bodied adults to receive SNAP benefits without satisfying the program’s work requirements inflicts harm on the relief recipients themselves, as well as the broader community. Nonetheless, federal and state officials have gone to great lengths to waive those work requirements for the vast majority of recipients. Thus, Congress should fix the problem. That is the crux of the EPIC report.

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Remarkably, the report devoted nearly three pages to arguments defending the value of work. It cited scholars and major historical figures in support of an assertion once regarded as conventional wisdom.

Through work, for instance, man “achieves fulfillment as a human being,” according to Pope John Paul II.

Even public figures with unholy legacies have concurred in that sentiment.

“The culture of welfare must be replaced with the culture of work. The culture of dependence must be replaced with the culture of self-sufficiency and personal responsibility,” then-Sen. Joe Biden said in 1996.

Those admirable goals helped shape the work requirements associated with the food stamps program.

Depending on the relief recipient’s age and circumstances, SNAP features two different work requirements.

First, under the Food Stamp Act Amendment of 1970, able-bodied adults aged 18 to 65 must “register” for work. This means conducting a job search through a state employment agency, accepting any offers of “suitable employment,” maintaining that employment unless “good cause” allows otherwise and taking part in any state-mandated employment and training programs, if applicable.

Exemptions apply for people who already work 30 hours per week, as well as some students, parents, caregivers and others. Furthermore, able-bodied adults covered by this registration requirement need not work as a condition of receiving food stamps.

Second, SNAP imposes a narrower work requirement on “able-bodied adults without dependents.” Under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, more commonly known as the Welfare Reform Act, signed by President Bill Clinton, ABAWDs must satisfy the work requirement (as opposed to merely registering for work) or else receive no more than three months’ worth of benefits in any 36-month period.

For fiscal year 2024, the second work requirement covers ABAWDs aged 18 to 52, though a host of exemptions apply.

States, of course, have a substantial role to play in the enforcement of work requirements. And they can play that role for good or ill.

In fact, one study found that in states with strict work requirements, relief recipients’ incomes rose and their dependency decreased. In Arkansas, Maine, Mississippi and Missouri, for instance, tens of thousands of able-bodied adults who left the welfare rolls thanks to work requirements saw their incomes increase by averages of 114 to 204 percent.

Alas, most states offer generous work-requirement waivers for SNAP benefits. Significantly, of the 19 states that offer no such waivers, only Georgia went for Biden in the 2020 presidential election.

Of course, some work-requirement exemptions for ABAWDs will strike most readers as humane and, therefore, appropriate. These include exemptions for pregnancy, caregiving responsibilities and physical or mental unfitness for work.

Shenanigans ensue, however, when states begin to apply so-called “geographic waivers” for ABAWDs. In areas with unemployment rates above 10 percent, or, more subjectively, in areas that lack “a sufficient number of jobs,” states often grant geographic waivers for periods of one or two years at a time. The report called this “a massive loophole in the ABAWD work requirement.”

One can easily imagine the communal consequences of these blanket waivers, which produce geographic concentrations of people trapped in dependency. It is almost as if officials want to create pockets or entire regions of degradation and despair.

Indeed, according to the report, the “Biden Administration has pushed states to seek waivers.” The USDA “highly encourages states to consider requesting waivers of the ABAWD time limit and to use discretionary exemptions as appropriate,” one agency official wrote.

Furthermore, to justify those geographic waivers, the USDA allows states to use “cherry-picked data” and to “gerrymander together different jurisdictions.”

“Left-wing advocacy groups even provide mapping and consulting services for states, helping them implement waivers of work requirements that are as broad as possible,” the report said.

The Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 reduced the states’ total number of discretionary exemptions from ABAWD work requirements. The EPIC report called this “good policy” but also a “modest change.”

Indeed, the FRA actually worked against the interests of ABAWD relief recipients by adding three new exemptions to the work requirements, including exemptions for homeless individuals, veterans and people aged 24 and younger who formerly lived in foster care.

“These new exceptions will trap more work-capable adults in dependance rather than helping them become self-sufficient members of society,” the report read.

On the whole, therefore, legislators have a duty to reverse these anti-human policies.

Congress should strengthen food stamp work requirements by including all work capable adults, eliminating geographic waivers, phasing up the hours of expected effort, and preventing a lifetime of dependency. These significant policy reforms will increase human flourishing and help our fellow Americans,” the report concluded.

What’s at Stake in the SNAP Work Requirements Debate?

Perhaps the most shocking viral success story of 2023 came from overnight music sensation Oliver Anthony.

In the working-class anthem “Rich Men North of Richmond,” Anthony vented his rage at the decadent, D.C.-based ruling class with lyrical references to inflation, authoritarianism and Epstein’s Island. Within days of its release last August, “Rich Men North of Richmond” became one of the world’s most popular songs.

One set of lyrics, however, resulted in controversy:

Lord, we got folks in the street ain’t got nothin’ to eat
And the obese milkin’ welfare
But God, if you’re five foot three and you’re three hundred pounds
Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds 

Liberals, of course, accused Anthony of blaming relief recipients for their unfortunate circumstances. In truth, however, he merely paraphrased charges that the great 19th-century slave-turned-abolitionist Frederick Douglass once leveled against the most vicious slaveholders. In short, powerful people will go to great lengths to keep the masses poor, desperate and dependent.

And that should remind us of the stakes involved in the debate over SNAP work requirements.

In “The Radicalism of the American Revolution,” winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize in History, Gordon S. Wood described the American Founding as a social revolution that resulted, among other things, in the ennobling of work.

Part of the American Revolution’s legacy, Wood wrote, involved “overturning the ancient tradition of aristocratic leisure and leadership and celebrating in its place what Emerson called ‘the dignity and necessity of labor to every citizen.'”

Indeed, the relationship between dignity and productive activity occupied the minds of America’s greatest Founding Fathers.

In “The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America,” historian Drew McCoy explained why those great Founders, especially Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, dwelt at length on aspects of public policy designed to preserve and promote individual citizens’ personal character.

“It was commonly assumed in Revolutionary America that a republican form of government was particularly precarious because it could succeed only in an extraordinary society of distinctively moral people,” McCoy wrote.

In other words, encouraging people not to work and keeping them dependent on government relief makes a republic impossible.

Indeed, Americans have long understood the symbiotic relationship between work and freedom. The Nazis also knew as much when they mocked their Holocaust victims with a notorious inscription over the gate at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp: “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work will set you free”).

Affluent modern liberals, authoritarian by disposition, have made war on traditional American principles in a variety of ways. Thus, it comes as no surprise that they would encourage idleness and dependency.

This war on American principles has deep psychological and political roots that would require an essay unto themselves.

For one thing, like ancient aristocrats who prided themselves on their noblesse oblige from inside palace gates, affluent liberals in gated communities like to think of themselves as benefactors to the less fortunate. Encouraging impoverished people to avoid work requirements, therefore, undoubtedly feels like compassion to a liberal.

And that is the most generous interpretation of liberal motives. Less charitable conclusions follow from examining the fruits of their labors.

For instance, how much damage did they inflict by shutting down the country during the COVID pandemic? What did young people learn about the value of labor when state governments deemed nearly all workers “non-essential”?

Indeed, as the economic forecast has darkened under Biden, millennials and Gen Z in particular have adopted the sort of destructive spending habits in which young people tend to engage when they regard labor as a necessary evil instead of a virtuous pathway to a better life.

Furthermore, long-term historical developments suggest that young people have good reasons for skepticism about the value of work.

After all, when corporations and members of the federal government — elected or otherwise — have allied with one another to enrich themselves on foreign wars, devalue the people’s currency by printing money to pay the interest on the national debt and concentrate wealth in the counties surrounding the national capital, who can blame younger and poorer Americans for questioning the value of a life spent working?

In short, when viewed in the context of a decadent ruling class and its assault on traditional American values, the EPIC report and the debate over SNAP work requirements have substantial consequences.

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Michael Schwarz holds a Ph.D. in History and has taught at multiple colleges and universities. He has published one book and numerous essays on Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the Early U.S. Republic. He loves dogs, baseball, and freedom. After meandering spiritually through most of early adulthood, he has rediscovered his faith in midlife and is eager to continue learning about it from the great Christian thinkers.
Michael Schwarz holds a Ph.D. in History and has taught at multiple colleges and universities. He has published one book and numerous essays on Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the Early U.S. Republic. He loves dogs, baseball, and freedom. After meandering spiritually through most of early adulthood, he has rediscovered his faith in midlife and is eager to continue learning about it from the great Christian thinkers.




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