Ronald Reagan once said, “The best social program is a job.” I happen to agree with him. Our Commonwealth has a responsibility to assist able-bodied individuals to become self-sufficient. Our public policies should reflect that fact. When I talk about welfare reform, this is what I mean: helping to get people who can work back to work. The goal of this type of reform is to break the cycle of poverty which our current welfare system perpetuates. People want to work and provide for themselves and their families. In fact, studies suggest that people are happier and healthier when they take pride in their work. Incentivizing work should be a part of our new welfare program.
On January 2, I was joined by legislators from across Pennsylvania to announce a package of welfare reform legislation, focused not only on cost savings but in developing true pathways to prosperity. Welfare costs continue to rise, driving up our state budget year after year. In fact, today, we spend more on welfare than on education. Since 2003, the number of Pennsylvanians on Medicaid has risen from 12 percent to 20 percent. In this same time, the number of Pennsylvanians on Food Stamps has more than doubled from six percent up to 14 percent of our total population. This is not acceptable in our Commonwealth.
The good news is that we don’t need to reinvent the wheel in taking the steps to find programs that “work.” In Kansas, work requirements were implemented resulting in almost 13,000 Kansans freed from the cycle of poverty. 60% of people leaving food stamps found jobs within a year and incomes rose on average by 127%. In Maine, similar results showed 114% increase in incomes. Crucially, for every $2,000 in public benefits lost, people earned an additional $3,000 in salary. These types of initiatives can truly get people back to work. However, nearly every Pennsylvania county has a waiver to avoid enforcing work requirements that are already in the law. Based on data from other states, enforcing work requirements could result in helping to get an additional 80,000-100,000 Pennsylvanians back to work and create nearly $200 million more in higher wages.
Another fact shown in studies is that time limits are effective tools in getting people off welfare and back to work. When implementing a policy to limit Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) in Kansas, family incomes doubled within the first year and eventually tripled. In Pennsylvania, we are one of a very few states who have an expansive e-TANF (extended TANF) program, which lasts beyond the five-year limitation of the TANF system and reduces the incentive to rejoin the workforce.
With the economy continuing to grow and businesses expanding, now is the perfect time to implement these type of initiatives: when jobs are available and employers are hiring, not during a recession when people are losing their jobs and need benefits. Currently in Luzerne County, Berkshire Hathaway, Chewy.com, and Medico Industries are all expanding and in need of workers among numerous other employers and professions throughout the county. It is our duty to help pave the way to prosperity, break the cycle of poverty, and promote lifestyles of self-sufficiency.
There is no doubt that legislation recently introduced can play a major role in rethinking not only our state budget but also in building the middle class by leading others out of poverty. Other states have followed the lead of Kansas and Maine and have passed similar legislation including Florida, Mississippi, Missouri, and North Carolina. Pennsylvania could and should be next. Helping those truly in need may be one of the highest ideals one can reach for, but helping those who are able-bodied and in poverty get back to work, rebuilding their dignity and self-worth, and restoring the American Dream is the opportunity of a lifetime to break the cycle of poverty for the next generation. After all, give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.