Welfare Reform Is 20 Years Old and It’s Worse Than You Can Imagine

A time limit on food stamps hits the poorest the hardest.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP


Last year, Gov. Phil Bryant of Mississippi made a decision that could disrupt the lives of nearly 84,000 of his state’s poorest residents. There was no public announcement or debate. It took a critical report by advocates and a swell in media coverage to alert policy circles to what was coming. “The overall feeling was a lot of panic and stress,” said Jessica Shappley, a senior policy analyst at the Jackson-based Hope Policy Institute.

The two-term Republican governor had reintroduced a three-month time limit on food stamp access for “able-bodied adults without dependents,” individuals between the ages of 18 and 49 who are known as “ABAWDs.” After three months of receiving food aid, they would now have to prove they were working at least 20 hours a week. If they couldn’t, their food stamps—averaging between $150 and $170 a month—would be cut off. The loss of that aid would disrupt the lives of many low-income Mississippians. “It’s the difference between having a meal every day until the end of the month and literally running on empty the last couple weeks,” said Matt Williams, research director at the Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative.

“It’s the difference between having a meal every day until the end of the month and literally running on empty the last couple weeks.”

The time limit is an often overlooked section of the sweeping welfare reform bill that former President Bill Clinton signed into law 20 years ago today. In a statement after signing the bill, Clinton heralded the legislation as a “historic opportunity to end welfare as we know it and transform our broken welfare system by promoting the fundamental values of work, responsibility, and family.” The bill granted states a large degree of discretion over how, and even whether, the food stamp policy was implemented, so that states with high unemployment were able to request a waiver that nullifies the time limit.

In recent years, Republican governors and legislatures across the country have passed up the waivers not because of belt-tightening—SNAP benefits are fully funded by the federal government, and the administrative costs are split 50-50 with the state—but because of ideology. Mississippi, which has the fifth-highest unemployment rate in the country, had received a statewide waiver every year since 2006. But in 2016, the story took an unexpected turn. Echoing like-minded politicians in Wisconsin and North Carolina, Gov. Bryant told the Mississippi Department of Human Services that he wanted to “steer people to jobs,” the Associated Press reported. The consequence? Across the country, tens of thousands of people in areas of high unemployment—including veterans, the homeless, and the mentally and physically handicapped—have lost access to federally funded food assistance. Many are likely to fall into what policymakers call “food insecurity,” the state of not reliably knowing where your next meal will come from.

The tension between conservative ideology and the harsh realities of poverty is nowhere more evident than Mississippi, which has the highest rate of food insecurity in the nation (22 percent) and the second-highest rate of poverty. African Americans are more than twice as likely to be poor than white Mississippians. Three historically impoverished regions converge here: the toe of Appalachia in the northeastern corner, the Delta region along the western edge, and the Black Belt that extends across the state. Since agricultural labor was mechanized, beginning in the 1940s, and jobs in rural regions disappeared, working-age people have moved, leaving a shrunken tax base. “We have some counties that are persistently losing people,” said John Green, director of the Center for Population Studies at the University of Mississippi. “As [the counties] try to do things like improve education, diversify the economy, invest in small businesses, it’s harder and harder for them to do that.”

With unemployment rates in some counties more than twice as high as in the United States as a whole, few jobs exist for the people who now must work 20 hours a week to avoid losing their food stamps. Earlier this year, Bryant’s spokesman directed the Associated Press to the state’s jobs app, which he said “currently lists more than 40,000 job openings,” but there were twice as many ABAWDs as positions and no guarantees that the jobs were in communities where they lived.

The federal government even offers additional funding to states that pledge to provide job training or workfare slots for every person facing the time limit. But only five states have taken the pledge, and Mississippi is not among them. A memo sent by the Mississippi Department of Human Services to the US Department of Agriculture last year estimated that more than 71,000 of an estimated 84,000 ABAWDs were at risk of losing their food stamps and noted that only 1,391 workfare slots would be made available each month in 2016. The problem, according to Ed Bolen, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, is that job training and workfare programs are “expensive,” and under the 1996 welfare reform bill, states are not obligated to offer them.

The time limit became law during a period of seismic shifts in the American welfare system. In July 1996, President Bill Clinton and the Republican-dominated Congress were desperately seeking a compromise on the radical welfare overhaul that Clinton had promised in his presidential run. Clinton had already vetoed two proposals. On the day the House was to vote on a third version, John Kasich and Bob Ney from Ohio proposed a three-month lifetime limit on food stamps for able-bodied adults without dependents—unless they worked 20 hours a week.

Some Democrats were horrified; Bill Hefner (D-N.C.) declared it the “most mean-spirited amendment” that had come before the body in his 22 years in the House. Kasich assured the critics that anyone willing to work would be able to meet the requirement. “If you cannot find a job, you go to work for the state in a workfare program,” he said, adding that the rule would only apply in areas where “there are jobs available.” The amendment was debated for half an hour and added to the welfare reform bill. In negotiations, the time limit was softened to three months every three years. Despite signing the bill, Clinton expressed “strong objections” to the food stamp provision, saying that the policy failed to support able-bodied adults who “want to work, but cannot find a job or are not given the opportunity to participate in a work program.” Summing up the bill’s popular appeal, Ney—who a decade later was jailed for selling official favors to the clients of notorious Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff—told the Columbus Dispatch that there was “no escalator built by Washington to carry you up the ladder of opportunity.”

“Except for the Great Depression of the 1930s, even abundant evidence of job scarcity failed to shake the belief that men were unemployed because they were lazy or incompetent.”

Suspicion toward the able-bodied poor runs deep in the history of US social assistance. In the words of historian Michael Katz, “Except for the Great Depression of the 1930s, even abundant evidence of job scarcity failed to shake the belief that men were unemployed because they were lazy or incompetent.” During the Reagan era, black mothers described as “welfare queens” became seen as undeserving of aid. By 1996, food stamps were the only form of aid widely available to the able-bodied poor. A few, about 136,000, also received general assistance, or cash benefits granted to the impoverished who do not qualify for other programs. But that support has waned as states slashed their general assistance programs in the intervening decades. Today, only 11 states offer such benefits to childless adults who are not disabled, leaving food stamps the one source of aid for the 4.7 million people in this group as of 2014.

For all the political rancor directed at the able-bodied poor, remarkably little is known about them. A report commissioned by the USDA in 1998 referred to ABAWDs as a “little-known segment of the Food Stamp population,” and little has changed since then. States are not obligated to track the able-bodied once they leave SNAP; from a policy standpoint, that means they all but disappear. The group likely to be cut off from food stamps have an average monthly income of just 17 percent of the official poverty line, which in 2016 is $11,880 a year for an individual, and includes veterans, the homeless, and people with undiagnosed mental and physical disabilities.

Consider the 48-year-old African American woman in poor physical health who earlier this summer appeared at an office in Indianola, Mississippi, a city in the heart of the Delta known as the childhood home of B.B. King. She wanted a signature to prove that she had come looking for work and arrived at the Mississippi Center for Justice—a Jackson-based public-interest law firm. The staff soon realized that she was one of those nearly 84,000 in the state struck by the new time limit.  She told Matt Williams, then a policy associate at the center, that after a lifetime of work her back could no longer handle physical labor. Under federal law, a physical handicap should have qualified her for an exemption from the time limit. But she had been led to understand that, because she was not receiving disability payments, she was legally “able-bodied.” After missing an employment and training session early in the year, the woman lost her food stamps for two months. Desperate, she had re-enrolled and was now paying someone to drive her around the city to perform mandatory job search activities, Williams told Mother Jones. He and a colleague advised the woman to seek a medical notice testifying to her condition, after which they lost contact.

“If people realized [that these are] veterans, people with mental disabilities, people who have nowhere else to turn…they might feel differently.” 

There are provisions in the law to protect people in certain circumstances from the time limit, but to determine whether a person qualifies for an exemption the state has to gather a pile of new information. Many states don’t. Instead they send out form letters informing ABAWDs that they are now facing the time limit and telling them to speak to a caseworker if they qualify for an exemption. By doing that, states have shifted the burden of implementing a vital piece of the policy onto the poor and disadvantaged people affected by it. In Florida, according to Cindy Huddleston, an attorney at Florida Legal Services, people are “never given a complete list of everything that might exempt them.” When the time limit went into effect in Franklin County, Ohio, in 2014, people thought to be ABAWDs “were brought in in very large groups, anywhere from 200 to 400 people…and basically told to go get a job,” said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks. “Having been in those,” she added, “I can tell you they’re worse than cattle calls. It’s hard to hear instructions.”

There are a whole host of reasons why a person might not be able to find or perform work, but little of this information is systematically captured by state agencies. From 2014 to 2015, Hamler-Fugitt’s organization conducted a rare comprehensive survey of 5,000 people subjected to the time limit in Franklin County. What they found contradicts the popular image of the food stamp recipient who could work but just doesn’t feel like it. One in three of their “able-bodied” clients self-reported a physical or mental limitation, with a quarter saying their conditions obstructed daily activities. Nearly 13 percent said they were caregivers to a parent, friend, or relative. And 36 percent said they had felony convictions, a known barrier to employment. Public support for the policy might just hinge on the public not truly knowing who is affected, Cindy Huddleston said. “If people realized [that these are] veterans, people with mental disabilities, people who have nowhere else to turn…they might feel differently.”

In Mississippi, many of those now facing the time limit likely qualify for an exemption. Ellen Collins runs the Prosperity Center of Greater Jackson, a one-stop shop serving low-income Mississippians in partnership with a Department of Human Services office. When five suspected ABAWDs came in for a meeting with a caseworker earlier this year, she said, it turned out that three of them qualified for an exemption. “What I’m hearing from other offices is that they think that same percentage probably applied,” Collins said. But without individual attention from caseworkers, thousands have likely slipped through the cracks. The Mississippi Center for Justice estimates that more than 42,000 ABAWDs disappeared from the SNAP program between January and June this year.

While advocates suggest that Mississippi could invest more in job training or use the many measures available in the bill to soften the time limit’s impact, there is a much simpler solution: Mississippi could seek a waiver. But, as Williams from the Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative notes, “Pure politics and ideology has driven the decision not to seek that waiver.”