Requiring work for welfare moves Texans out of dependency

Photo by Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

Everything is bigger in Texas, but not welfare dependency — and that is a good thing. As Congress ramps up the debate on overhauling several welfare programs, policymakers should look to Texas for guiding principles to achieve meaningful reform. The chief among them: a “work first” approach for able-bodied adults.

Texas understands that the real path out of dependency is work — not more welfare. The state focuses its programs on creating a fast track that moves people toward jobs as soon as possible. Instead of obsessing over formal educational attainment or complex government training programs, Texas makes getting a job — the first step to long-term independence — priority No. 1.

Consider this: a single mom receiving cash assistance in Texas is on welfare for less than a month when she is meeting the work requirement. And the supposed “cliff effect,” which suggests people will fall off a “cliff” if they earn too much and lose their welfare benefits, is dealt with quickly when someone climbs out of the welfare trap. For a single mom with two kids on cash welfare, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, going back to work — even at minimum wage — means taking home more than double in total wages and benefits than when she was only receiving welfare.

Texas achieves these results by putting work at the center of its welfare programs. One of the primary ways it does this is by engaging able-bodied adults on food stamps — including parents — in the work-first culture. While some states have work requirements for certain able-bodied adults without dependents, very few require that parents or middle-aged childless adults participate in work programs.

Federal law technically requires that these “work registrants” — able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 60 who have no dependent children under age 6 — take a job if it is offered, do not turn down or quit a job, and attend a work program if the state assigns them to one. But most states don’t require participation in these work programs, so no one is assigned.

Texas does require participation and it makes a major impact. Of the 800,000 able-bodied adults on food stamps that are part of the work program in Texas, all but 4 percent are required to participate. If they refuse to cooperate when Texas requires it, they face temporary removal with increasingly stiffer penalties for non-compliance. Conversely, none of California’s 1.9 million able-bodied adults on food stamps are required to participate in a work program. Not one.

By requiring these able-bodied adults on welfare to participate in work, Texas has seen great results. When they move off the program, most of these adults have real wages from a job that very same month. And after exiting the program, an impressive 75 percent are working a year later.

Texas is effective because it requires mandatory participation in work or work programs and because it focuses on work first, instead of fixating on vague “education” or “training” programs that show little results. The state does this by partnering directly with the business community to make sure people who cooperate with the requirement move straight into a job.

Most other states, like California, have only voluntary employment and training programs. As a result, very few able-bodied adults ever participate. For example, in Maine, the state agency in charge of food stamps called thousands of able-bodied adults and invited them to participate in these food stamp employment and training programs. Only a handful ever showed up — because it was not required.

Texas understands that these work programs are not effective when they are optional — work should be a requirement for all able-bodied adults. All workforce and welfare programs should consistently prioritize work.

Federal policymakers and lawmakers in other states should follow Texas’ lead by making work requirements mandatory for all able-bodied adults on welfare and refocusing training programs to have a work-first culture. Only then will America be able to move millions of people off the sidelines, out of dependency, and back to work.

Tarren Bragdon

President and CEO, Foundation for Government Accountability