Georgia SNAP and “The Dignity of Work”

When the question is “How did more than 7,000 Georgians lose food stamps?” it’s kind of surprising that the answer is as straightforward as “Because that’s how it works.” Now, I don’t support forcing people to go hungry as a rule [Editor’s Note: The Editorial Board of the Georgia Wonk reminds readers that Mr. Hardy is an independent contributer, and that his views do not necessarily reflect those of the leadership of the Georgia Wonk], but I’m willing to look at this logically. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly “food stamps”) is set up based on the same philosophy as TANF (colloquially, “welfare”), namely that there are three types of people in the world: those who can work, and do; those who can’t work, and don’t; and those who can work, and don’t. Assistance programs in the United States of all kinds, but especially SNAP and TANF, are concerned, and explicitly so, with the second type of person.

That’s because the goal of those programs is not to provide a helping hand to people in need, it’s to support them while they’re getting back to work, the logic being that if you have a job, you can help yourself (we’ll set aside, for now, the fact that a single parent with one child, working full-time at minimum wage, is actually under the federal poverty line–minimum wage is a tricky question that I’m not equipped to deal with). The Georgia Public Policy Foundation writes that “The overriding objective of overhauling state and federal welfare programs must be to maximize the odds of helping people move from dependency to self-sufficiency” and that “The problem is not insufficient government spending, but rather how the money is spent.”


Presented without comment.

To that end, SNAP is structured in such a way that if you aren’t working, and you don’t have a good excuse, you lose eligibility for SNAP benefits after three months. The thinking behind this, again, is that we (the taxpayers, or, more accurately, the taxspenders) don’t want to “waste” money on people who can fend for themselves. We only want to help those who aren’t able to help themselves through other means.

And SNAP does help. SNAP works. In 2011, it lifted an estimated 3.7 million people out of poverty. It responds quickly and effectively to downturns in the economy (the front-row kid word for this is “countercyclical:” as the economy gets worse, enrollment in these programs increases, and vice versa).  In other words, it does exactly what it’s supposed to: catching people when they fall and helping them get back up.

The three-month limit–which says that if you’re an ABAWD, an Able-Bodied Adult Without Dependents, you can only be on SNAP for three months without a job–is a federal policy. That’s not a Georgia thing, it’s the way the law works. But, ever since 2007, Georgia’s been under a waiver that lets us suspend that requirement. The Georgia Budget & Policy Institute (generally the Furiosa to GPPF’s Immortan Joe) writes that there are over 318,000 people in Georgia subject to work requirements, which means close to 20% of SNAP recipients in Georgia are protected from losing their benefits under that waiver.

The waiver’s running out. So far, it’s only been lifted in 21 counties, which accounts for the 7,000 who recently lost benefits. But by 2019, every county in Georgia will be back to normal, and if the numbers stay stable, we could be looking at almost 200,000 people getting kicked off the rolls (My math: of the 11,779 ABAWDs in the 21 counties that lost the waiver, 7,251 lost benefits, a 62% drop. 318,000 x 0.62=197,160).

Remember, for some policymakers, this is a feature, not a bug. The AJC quotes Representative Greg Morris, who says “This is about protecting taxpayer dollars from abuse, and taking people off the cycle of dependency.” He also throws out the standard Republican shibboleth of protecting taxpayer dollars from fraud and abuse as justification for trimming the rolls (despite the fact that SNAP fraud rates are steady at about 1%, which, for the folks in the back of the class, means that 99 cents of every dollar goes where it’s supposed to, which, for the folks in the way back of the class, makes it a spectacular example of efficient government spending).

Implied in all this is the idea of the “dignity of work,” that the State does a disservice to the citizen by fostering a sense of dependence, rather than self-sufficiency. This is made explicit by commentators on the right. Benita Dodd of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation writes that “The goal [of welfare] must be to focus aid on those who truly need help and restore the dignity of work to able-bodied adults. Reducing dependency and promoting economic opportunity help end the cycle of poverty, reinforce the temporary nature of assistance and encourage personal responsibility” (emphasis mine).

The “dignity of work” argument rests on the assumption that if someone else is paying for your food, you aren’t going to work to get any for yourself. Which makes sense, on its face, but it isn’t backed up by reality. For example, look at this New York Times article, which makes a convincing claim that providing a floor for workers (in the form of food or childcare) actually makes people more productive (a familiar argument to everyone who’s heard of UBI). Even if you don’t buy the “more welfare=more work” argument, you should support SNAP based on the secondary economic benefits: every $0.63 spend on SNAP generates $1.12 in economic activity, which, to me at least, seems like a pretty good argument for expanding the rolls, not contracting them. The average benefits for SNAP work out to about $1,550 a year, which means that by cutting almost 200,000 people, Georgia is potentially leaving as much as $558 billion on the table. That’s a lot of (say it with me) stop signs and fire hydrants.

And we don’t really know if the people who get kicked off of SNAP go into the workforce–the USDA doesn’t track those numbers. I did a little bit of research to see if there was a correlation between food insecurity and the expiration of Georgia’s waivers, but I don’t think the data’s there yet. If able-bodied people were just scamming the system, you’d expect to see no change in food insecurity, because they’d have gone out and gotten a job as soon as they’d been kicked off the program. My thinking is there’s a good chunk of folks who get kicked off SNAP because they’re technically able to work but remain unemployed, but I don’t have the numbers to support that theory.

But if you don’t agree with either of the earlier arguments (that SNAP encourages work, not discourages it, and that SNAP is a net positive economic benefit), think about this: if there truly is “dignity in work,” then you shouldn’t have to put limits on SNAP, or any welfare program, because people will want to get off those programs as fast as they can. Since people don’t, and there are people who use welfare benefits for quite some time, the “dignifiers” have to face an uncomfortable choice: either welfare does breed dependency, in which case the dignity of work doesn’t carry a whole lot of weight, or life is harder than a lot of well-educated think-tank goons want to admit.

Their argument rests on the assumption that there are people out there lolling in sloth, sucking on the teat of the welfare state, slovenly and lazy. If that’s not true–if it turns out that there are people on welfare who desperately do not want to be on welfare, but for any number of uncontrollable external circumstances, can’t find work anyway, then maybe, just maybe, success isn’t a matter of “wanting” it bad enough. SNAP isn’t a threat to self-sufficiency and boostrap living, because bootstraps aren’t enough any more.

Anyway, that’s 1200-odd words to say that work requirements for welfare are logical and might even have been well-intentioned, but they haven’t demonstrated the kind of success their proponents hoped for. Scrap ’em.

Categories: Commentary

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