Although it’s still too early to tell what effects last year’s welfare reform initiative will have on North Carolina, similar policies put in place by the state of Maine in 2014 have already proved to be extremely successful in breaking the chains of poverty in the Pine Tree State.
In July 2014, Republican Governor Paul LePage first announced that he would reinstate work requirements for Maine’s able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) who received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, more commonly known as food stamps. The work requirements implemented in Maine mandated that able-bodied adults to either work 20 hours a week, volunteer one hour a day, or be in a vocational training program to continue to be eligible for food stamps.
The conservative reforms to SNAP eligibility in Maine took effect in December of 2014, and as a result, their ABAWD caseload dropped by 80 percent within just a few months — declining from 13,332 recipients in December 2014 to just 2,678 in March 2015. According to the United States Census Bureau, Maine’s total population in the summer of 2014 was 1,330,089 people.
“These welfare programs have really trapped people in poverty,” remarked Mary Mayhew, Maine’s Commissioner of Health and Human Services. “So, front and center in our reforms has been promoting employment and emphasizing that a job is not a dirty word.”
North Carolina enacted similar legislation in November of last year reinstating President Bill Clinton’s “workfare” policy that required that able-bodied adults without children who receive food stamps must meet minimal work requirements in order to continue receiving benefits. Because the process here has been phased-in (with the most urbanized counties having the lowest unemployment rates seeing the changes first), we haven’t had the time to measure the results — but if Maine’s success is any indication, it’s a promising sign for both conservative reformers and welfare recipients in North Carolina.
The Foundation for Government Accountability determined that in 2014, 210,000 childless adults received food stamps in North Carolina, and a DHHS county-by-county projection found that just half of those will be subject to the workfare requirements — meaning that 126,000 to 168,000 able-bodied adults could eventually be freed from the welfare trap that keeps people in poverty. North Carolina’s total population in 2014 was just under 10 million people, roughly seven and a half times that of Maine.
Should North Carolina see its ABAWD caseload drop at a comparable rate to Maine’s 80 percent, as many as 33,600 of our fellow citizens could be finally freed from the shackles of welfare, perhaps by the end of this year. North Carolina ranks near the top of nearly every list for economic vitality, business competitiveness, tax climate, tourism, and other metrics, which should further enhance the prospects of those folks looking for work.
“There was a very strong feeling in both houses of the General Assembly that the work requirement for able-bodied people is something that we needed to have,” said Senate President Pro-Tem Phil Berger in an October 16 interview with WUNC Public Radio. “It’s a provision that was widely supported and is something from a policy standpoint is the right thing for North Carolina to do.”
Republican lawmakers in both Maine and North Carolina received harsh criticism from liberal activists in the media who argued that work requirements were too severe. But conservative reformers maintain that the only way to put people on a pathway to upward economic mobility is by breaking the cycle of poverty and government dependence. In Maine, that idea has certainly worked: not only has the welfare caseload declined by 80% (saving millions in taxpayer dollars), but the incomes among those still receiving food stamps has increased by an astonishing 114%.
We’ll keep you posted as we learn more.
For more information, please read “Maine Food Stamp Work Requirement Cuts Non-Parent Caseload by 80 Percent,” a scholarly paper published in February 2016 by Robert Rector, Rachel Sheffield and Kevin D. Dayaratna, Ph.D.