Earlier this month, a group of Republican Pennsylvania state representatives ignited debate over a package of bills attempting to reduce state expenditures on welfare programs. Amid ongoing concern over the state's fiscal status, these bills are framed as ways to save money. But when you get beyond the political rhetoric, it becomes clear that these so-called reforms might actually cost taxpayers more, not less.
Two of the bills take aim at SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), a program that 1,856,092 Pennsylvanians participate in. To qualify for SNAP, a single person must earn no more than $19,296 per year, while a family of four must have a total income of less than $39,360.
House Bills 1659, introduced by Rep. Mike Tobash (Schuylkill-Dauphin), and 1559, introduced by Rep. Kristin Hill (York), place new restrictions on who can receive SNAP benefits. While one bill would require able-bodied adults without dependents to "work, perform community service, participate in a work program or be enrolled as a full-time student" to receive more than three months of SNAP benefits; the other would require that adults receiving SNAP and taking care of children must "cooperate with the department's division of child support services in establishing paternity of the child and in establishing, modifying or enforcing a support order with respect to the child."
These proposed bills address what Tobash and Rep. Aaron Kaufer (R., Luzerne) claim is a challenge "to separate those who are truly needy and eligible for state assistance from those who are not and are taking advantage of taxpayers." But there simply isn't evidence that this kind of crackdown is warranted. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, only 1.3 percent of SNAP benefits are trafficked, or sold for cash.
These bills won't help cut costs either, but instead will add to the state's bureaucracy by requiring more stringent tracking of paternity, employment and other aspects. "It's more administratively burdensome to do this," says Ty Jones, director of policy at Benefits Data Trust, a nonprofit organization that helps people navigate the benefits system. "If the goal is to save money, it's going to cost more."
To see how administrative costs can easily overtake the cost of assistance itself, look at TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), a program that supports the lowest-income Pennsylvanians and which is also under attack in this round of proposed bills. Less than half of TANF's annual cost is spent on cash assistance; the rest is spent on administrative needs.
House Bill 1788 would reduce the amount of time that a family could receive TANF benefits from five years to four years. Centre County Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, who sponsored the bill, claims that five years isn't temporary enough, and that families must find ways to move off assistance quicker. Given that the TANF timeline isn't five consecutive years, but 60 months over a lifetime, losing those extra months of help could be devastating to families without stable employment. (Remember, to qualify for TANF, a family of four must have an income of less than $700 per month.)
Perhaps the only bright spot in this package of bills is a not-yet formally introduced bill by Kaufer that would pilot a program to incentivize employers to hire TANF recipients. The program would match TANF's cash assistance with a salary for up to a year until the employee can get off TANF and be paid for a full 40-hour work week. It's a valiant approach, but if the goal is a cost-effective government, this effort isn't going to come cheap.
There is a way to get people off welfare without additional government administration: raise the minimum wage. Pennsylvania had 144,000 people who earned the minimum wage or less in 2016. At Pennsylvania's current minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, a person working 40 hours per week will earn just $15,080 a year.
This annual salary puts that worker below the poverty line, and eligible for many kinds of assistance. The federal minimum wage was $2.90 in 1979; keeping pace with inflation would mean a minimum wage of $10.47 today. At a wage of $10 per hour, a fully employed person would no longer qualify for SNAP or TANF, and a two-parent family earning the same rate wouldn't either.
In an article in City & State, Kaufer and Tobash stress the dignity of work; it is hard to imagine a situation where $7.25 per hour is a dignified wage for an adult, particularly an adult with dependents. Raising the minimum wage is something that can only be done at the state level, would increase state revenue from income taxes and would help some workers successfully exit state-run welfare programs. After all, a welfare-to-work agenda will only succeed if work pays people well enough to no longer need welfare.