Welfare as it exists in the minds of many Americans bears little resemblance to welfare as it exists in reality. The nation’s ‘welfare’ cash assistance program was functionally dismantled in the mid-1990s, but especially in Oklahoma, leaders still lean heavily on the specter of nanny state budget bloat and the work-shy freeloader. Even some twenty years after welfare was gutted, most voters either don’t know that the program was essentially eliminated or they have long since forgotten. This has made it easy for ambitious politicians to campaign on an ‘anti-welfare’ agenda while their actual proposals receive little scrutiny.
Oklahoma legislators recently targeted a nutrition assistance program called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), formerly food stamps, citing a disdain for ‘welfare’ and a commitment to the value of hard work. Oklahoma’s former House Speaker T.W. Shannon introduced HB 1909 in 2013 with a familiar refrain:
Unfortunately, some believe compassion is measured by how many people you can keep on a government aid program. We must change the paradigm to how many people we can get off government assistance. We must encourage able-bodied people to break their addiction to government subsidies and gain self-sufficiency.
However, comments like these – made before and after the passage of HB 1909 – aren’t consistent with what the bill actually accomplished. To be eligible for SNAP, you must either be working or be exempt from work. Most of those that are exempt from work are children, adults who are physically or cognitively unable to work, or older Oklahomans who have a lifetime of work behind them.
So SNAP is for parents who don’t earn enough through work to make ends meet or for those Oklahomans who are not in a position to earn at all, e.g. children, seniors, or people with disabilities. SNAP keeps hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans from going hungry by providing a modest monthly allowance to help with the cost of groceries.
Work is already a requirement of SNAP eligibility under federal law, but states are permitted to impose some of the strictest work rules on able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs). They must be actively looking for work, must accept a suitable job if offered one, and must comply with any job search and training requirements that a state imposes. Compared to other states, Oklahoma doesn’t require much of ABAWDs, nor do we provide them with any real job training or placement assistance. And that’s the key to the ‘work requirement’ that wasn’t.
Although Shannon and other supporters of his bill promised that HB 1909 would strengthen work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents – it didn’t even come close.
Shannon’s bill as originally proposed would have opened the door for much-needed case-management and work readiness resources for chronically under- and unemployed childless workers applying for SNAP. It could have expanded literacy classes for those who can’t read, GED classes for those without a diploma, and targeted job training for those living in regions with employment demands in industries that require a specialized skill.
Except that when House staff put the cost of expanding work opportunities at $18.9 million, Shannon stripped the bill of reforms and reduced it to one-sentence that prohibited the state from applying for a temporary waiver of the federal work requirement that was only available to states with exceptionally high unemployment. Since Oklahoma was already ineligible to apply for that waiver as of September 2013, a bill that barred Oklahoma from applying functionally accomplished nothing.
SNAP rules still plainly state that: ‘Oklahoma has declined to provide participation/work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents.’ But that didn’t stop Speaker Shannon from touting his success at welfare reform and bragging that he’d helped, “able-bodied people break their addiction to government subsidies and let them focus on building a career as opposed to continually suffering under the wheel of poverty.”
It’s quite clear that in reality, HB 1909 did nothing at all. Rather than enabling struggling workers to avoid government dependency by investing in their future, Shannon opted for a meaningless reform that imposed no additional work requirements but proved useful as a campaign talking point.
The real challenge for Oklahomans “continually suffering under the wheel of poverty” is not government dependence – it’s the low wages they’re paid for their work. Nearly one in three jobs in Oklahoma (30.5 percent) are in occupations where median annual pay is below poverty level. And nearly half of the state’s households (49.1 percent) can’t accumulate enough savings to prepare for emergencies, leaving them in a perpetual state of financial instability. Poverty is a persistent problem for Oklahoma, and it requires serious solutions. We can only hope that TW Shannon’s successors in the Legislature will resist the temptation moving forward to use low income working families as fodder for their political campaigns.