Work Is the Best Way out of Poverty, Most Americans Agree


Most Americans believe “work is the best solution for poverty,” according to a recent Rasmussen Report. A full 80 percent of Americans agree with this statement (9 percent disagree and 11 percent are undecided).

Using work to fight poverty was the driving force behind the welfare reforms of 1996. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and included work requirements for able-bodied adults.  With the creation of the work requirement, welfare rolls declined by half within five years, employment among low-income individuals rose, and child poverty rates dropped substantially.

Despite the success of work requirements, liberals have continually attempted to water them down. In a final blow, in July 2012, the Obama Administration essentially ended work requirements by issuing a directive from the Department of Health and Human Services that allow states to waive the work requirements. This executive overreach undermines welfare reform and creates a barrier to self-sufficiency.

In response to the Administration’s actions, the House passed a proposal to restore TANF’s work requirement. In conjunction with the proposal, the House Subcommittee on Human Resources held a hearing to investigate the Administration’s action to waive the work requirements. Jason Turner, executive director of the Secretary’s Innovation Group, testified that “without reciprocal work requirements in exchange for benefits, welfare programs tend to spin out of control.” Roughly 100 million people receive aid from at least one means-tested welfare program each month, and only a few of those programs include a work requirement.

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As Heritage’s Robert Rector explains, the Administration’s action weakened the already lenient work requirements by allowing states to replace them with looser standards, for example, by broadening the definition of work activities. These changes will likely increase the number of able-bodied welfare recipients who receive benefits without working.

Not only should the TANF work requirements be restored, but the food stamps program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), should be changed into a work activation program to promote personal responsibility. Heritage’s Rector and Katherine Bradley explain that since its implementation in the 1960s, SNAP has largely gone unchanged and essentially doles out unconditional aid. Like the old AFDC program, SNAP fails to promote personal responsibility. Instead, following the example of the 1996 welfare reform, able-bodied food stamp recipients should be required to work, prepare for work, or at least look for work as a condition of receiving aid.

Americans overwhelmingly agree that work is the solution to poverty. Helping those in need should not simply be about providing aid, but about helping individuals become independent. TANF work requirements should be restored and strengthened, and work requirements should be added to other welfare programs. Americans are right: Work is the best solution to poverty.

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