Republicans focus on food stamps as part of major welfare reform

Rep. Jim Jordan's bill, which is a companion to legislation authored by Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, also authorizes $500 million in federal funding for states to spend on job training, community service programs, and other

Rep. Jim Jordan’s bill, which is a companion to legislation authored by Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, also authorizes $500 million in federal funding for states to spend on job training, community service programs, and other “work activation programs.” (Graeme Jennings/Washington Examiner)

A group of Republican lawmakers thinks the time is right for the most significant welfare reform legislation in decades.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who has risen to become one of the most influential House Republicans after co-founding a conservative caucus that ousted former Speaker John Boehner, wants to impose work requirements on the recipients of what he estimates is nearly $1 trillion in taxpayer dollars. The legislation is modeled on the 1996 welfare reform that Bill Clinton signed into law. But it has a broader reach, targeting a variety of the largest means-tested aid programs.

And Jordan hopes to sell the bill with a distinctly populist pitch. “Second-shift workers and second-grade teachers right now are working hard, and they’re frustrated by the fact that there are able-bodied adults who are getting their tax dollars who can work, but won’t work, and are getting their money,” the House Freedom Caucus leader told the Washington Examiner.

To remedy that, Jordan and other Tea Party lawmakers have proposed an array of reforms, starting with a requirement that the government compile a full list of welfare programs and the amount of money spent. “What do we spend total?” he said, adding that a colleague estimates that 70 to 90 welfare programs are in existence. “Let’s say it’s $900 billion a year. OK, let’s cap that.” The bill would also combine and cap federal spending on nine different housing assistance programs over the next five years, before gradually cutting it over the five following years.

The most immediate policy changes pertain to the food stamp program, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The program nearly doubled during the recession, jumping from 26 million enrollees to 45 million. About five million of those people are healthy, working-age adults without children, according to Jordan’s team. “The first category that Americans are so frustrated with are able-bodied adults without dependents,” he said. “For goodness’ sake: You’ve got to do something. You can’t just get help from the taxpayer and not have to do something.”

Food-stamp recipients would “have to do something” for 100 hours a month, “a portion of which will be supervised work activation activities,” according to Jordan’s team. He cited recent news out of Alabama that the number of working-age adults on food stamps dropped 85 percent over three months following the imposition of work requirements.

“It’s a tough-love way to get them to a better position in life,” Jordan said. “What you find is, when work requirements are imposed, that people either go get the skill set they need or they’re doing some volunteer work or they’re doing some job training — they’re helping themselves, bettering themselves. Or what typically happens is they’ll just say, ‘oh i’ll just forego the program altogether and I’ll just go get a job, or I’ll get a second job.’ ”

The legislation takes a gentler approach with parents, particularly of small children, “as part of our pro-family approach,” Jordan said. Parents can split the 100-hour work requirement, and they also benefit from “a three-month safety window” in which they must meet with “a State job search employee for five hours per week,” according to a background memo on the bill. Parents with infants are exempted from working, while more limited exemptions would be give to parents with children younger than 6.

Mere cuts in food stamp spending don’t, by themselves, mean that the economy is improving or that the “tough love” approach has worked. But Jordan’s bill, which is a companion to legislation authored by Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, also authorizes $500 million in federal funding for states to spend on job training, community service programs, and other “work activation programs.”

Jordan and his allies in the Freedom Caucus, who number between 30 and 40 lawmakers, have demonstrated an ability to stymie leadership priorities when they vote as a bloc. They hope that the debates about federal spending and tax reform will give them an opportunity to get this welfare reform to President Trump’s desk. “Put welfare reform on the tax bill,” Jordan said. “One of the things we’re talking about in the Freedom Caucus is, [we] might we be willing to go for some spending levels that we normally wouldn’t support if we can get [welfare reform included in the tax reform bill].”

If their proposals work as planned, the welfare reform debate could affect other policy debates, particularly debt and immigration. Republicans believe the economy needs to grow by three percent annually in order to generate the money needed to cut into $20 trillion in federal debt; at the same time, many employers say they need immigrant labor to fill jobs Americans can’t or won’t do.

“You have to move people from welfare to work, or you’re not going to be able to get to a three percent growth rate,” Jordan said. “We’re with the president on securing the border, building the wall, that’s where we’re at on the security and immigration issue. That doesn’t change the fact that you need a workforce. The place to get the workforce is Americans who can work, but won’t work, and are getting taxpayer help. You’ve got to change that dynamic.”

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