Pennsylvania 'Gerrymanders' State Map to Keep More People on Welfare

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Able-bodied adults in 59 Pennsylvania counties who receive food stamps in 2018 won’t be bound by federal work requirements, thanks to a waiver given to the state by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services’ decision to apply for the waiver comes at a time when about a dozen states are seeking permission from Washington to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients.

Supporters of requiring welfare recipients to work, enroll in job training or perform community-service hours say it encourages people to get on a path to self-sufficiency faster. Others say those designated as “able-bodied” may have serious impediments to holding steady jobs, such as substance abuse or mental health issues.

“The problem here with waiving work requirements is you’re paying people not to work,” Jonathan Ingram, vice president of research at the Foundation for Government Accountability, told Watchdog.org.

Ingram is one of the authors of a 2016 FGA study that investigated the effects of work requirements in a welfare reform plan implemented in Kansas. About six in 10 of the able-bodied adults who left the food stamp program in Kansas as a result of the reforms found jobs within a year and saw their incomes rise by 127 percent, the study found.

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Pennsylvania officials grouped high-unemployment and low-unemployment counties together to make their case that the average jobless rate in the 59-county region was 20 percent above the national average, Ingram said. The USDA’s letter approving the waiver last December found that the counties’ average unemployment rate exceeded 5.7 percent over a two-year period at a time when the national jobless rate was only 4.78 percent.

“They sort of gerrymandered the map to make it work,” Ingram said.

Such waivers go beyond regulatory requirements and should prompt the Trump administration to rein in such state abuses, he said. Indeed, the waiver letter sent to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services mentioned that the Food and Nutrition Service would be reviewing its waiver policies as it works to support the administration’s position on moving Americans away from dependency and toward economic self-sufficiency.

“I think we need to start off with the fact that Pennsylvania has near-record unemployment …” Ingram said. “(Gov. Tom Wolf’s) administration is using loopholes and gimmicks to keep able-bodied adults on welfare longer.”

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Some of the counties in the waiver area have unemployment rates lower than the national average calculated for 2015 to 2017, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics. Adams County had an unemployment rate of 3.9 percent, while Bucks County reported a jobless rate of 4.5 percent, the BLS reported.

Ingram called work requirements critical for moving people to self-sufficiency. Only about one in four able-bodied adults receiving food stamps in Pennsylvania are now working, he said.

If more recipients are encouraged to find jobs, most of them would become financially better off, and state resources would be freed up to help the truly needy, according to Ingram.

Elizabeth Stelle, director of policy analysis for the Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg, said work requirements in the food stamp program were often waived during the 2008-2009 recession and that the requirements now only apply to eight Pennsylvania counties.

Just as many states now want to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients to rein in costs, similar efforts have helped some states make their welfare programs more effective and less costly, Stelle said.

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In Kansas and Maine, “tens of thousands of people left the program and were earning more income than they were on the program,” she told Watchdog.org.

A report released by the Commonwealth Foundation last year found that if Pennsylvania were to adopt such work-based welfare reforms, up to 100,000 physically fit adults could re-enter the state’s labor force.

“The benefits far outweigh the costs or concerns,” Stelle said.

Although higher unemployment rates might seem to justify food stamp waivers, the reality may be quite different, she said. County jobless rates are not good indicators of whether people on public assistance will be able to find employment, according to Stelle and the foundation’s research. That’s because, among other factors, it doesn’t factor in people’s ability to cross county lines in search of work, she said.

State legislators continue to grapple with the problem, Stelle said. One bill would require all food stamp recipients to take part in community service, enroll in educational programs or have regular jobs. Another bill would reduce time limits for such benefits.

“We have problems in our welfare programs,” she said. “Our programs do not work with each other. We don’t have an easy pathway out of poverty.”

Ingram emphasized that Pennsylvania should do more to get more able-bodied adults off the sidelines and help them become productive citizens.

“They will survive, and they will get what no amount of welfare is going to provide: the dignity that comes from work,” he said.

A version of this article appeared on Watchdog, a project of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

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