By Katherine Green Robertson
Under the Obama Administration, “reforms” to federal assistance programs have simply increased the programs’ recipients and spending rather than implementing more oversight or accountability. Specifically, the Administration has taken proactive steps to recruit Americans into programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and water down eligibility requirements for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program (TANF). Work requirements for recipients, previously tied to TANF eligibility since 1996, were rendered optional by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for state enforcement in 2012.
These work requirements have now been waived by nearly every state in the union. Categorical eligibility has been shamelessly promoted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in an effort to increase SNAP participation by individuals who would not meet SNAP eligibility requirements standing alone, but are deemed automatically eligible given their participation in other assistance programs. And, of course, all of this expansion requires more taxpayer dollars year after year.
It is perplexing that the Executive Branch of a country that is $17 trillion in debt appears to want more Americans in a very expensive system that can lead to a lifetime of government dependency and with no pressure to work.
Still, the federal government’s pocketbook is not the only one to be considered when it comes to welfare and food stamps. In FY2012, the State of Alabama spent roughly $80 million in state money on TANF and $40 million on SNAP. Of course, these numbers do not scratch the surface of what the state spends in total on entitlement programs each year.
While welfare caseloads expectedly increased during the recession, many states have sustained these increased numbers even six years later. As such, both traditionally-conservative and liberal-leaning states have looked for opportunities to tighten eligibility requirements and put in place policies that they hope will get more individuals back into the work force. Currently, states have the greatest flexibility over the administration of TANF.
This session, we have seen Alabama’s Legislature consider several proposals to bring Alabama’s TANF programs in line with practical reforms of other states. SB115, by Senator Arthor Orr (R-Decatur) would require TANF applicants to apply for at least three positions of employment prior to their eligibility determination, in addition to the job search requirements already in place for able-bodied TANF recipients. Similar requirements for applicants have recently been considered by the legislatures of both Massachusetts and Maine in the past year, as a result of significant reductions in caseloads for states with the provision already in place.
Orr’s SB116 would ban the use of TANF debit funds for purchase of alcohol or tobacco and would prohibit their use in tattoo parlors, casinos, or adult entertainment establishments. This bill has been offered in two previous sessions and would help satisfy a federal requirement that states restrict the use of welfare benefits for certain purchases or risk losing some federal block grant money for TANF. Lastly, SB114 would criminally punish fraud in obtaining public assistance.
There is no indication that an about-face on growing our welfare system will come from Washington anytime soon. While the U.S. House managed to gain some concessions on food stamp reform in the 2014 farm bill, the final version fell far short of the comprehensive reforms or massive cuts that Republicans had set out to achieve.
In many cases, the states have little say and are fully reliant on their representation in Washington to stand up to the constant expansion of these programs through relaxed eligibility requirements, lax oversight, and increased spending.
However, in instances where states are given greater flexibility, such as with TANF, Alabama should push back against the embrace of the welfare state by implementing proven reforms that promote accountability, work, and independence from government assistance while ensuring that these benefits are available to those in genuine need.