In 1996, the Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed welfare reform legislation, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), allowing states the flexibility to craft their own plans to move families living in subsistence poverty towards self-sufficiency. In 1997, as a State Senator from Aurora, I led the bi-partisan effort in Colorado by writing the welfare reforms that would require those receiving cash assistance, under TANF, to participate in work, training, or education in exchange for receiving public assistance. The legislation was signed into law by former Democratic Governor Roy Romer. The new program became known as Colorado Works and it still exists today.
However, the 1996 federal law did not provide the same reforms to the other programs such as food stamps, public housing assistance, or Medicaid.
Recently, the House passed H.R. 3102 the Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act of 2013, which extends the same 1996 TANF reforms to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). These reforms will require able-bodied individuals, without dependents, receiving food stamps to find work, attend an educational or training program for twenty hours a week, or participate in volunteer activities. It also reforms the application process so that one must specifically request food stamps instead of automatically receiving them when they become eligible for other assistance programs.
Although critics of the legislation claim the purpose is to take food out of the mouths of children, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The truth is that under this legislation, anyone who falls under the work requirements and who is an adult under 50 years of age and able-bodied will not be denied benefits so long as they are willing to sign up for the opportunity to get a job, participate in training, education, or even volunteer work. Conservatives like me believe in a strong safety net and the House reform bill maintains that for those in need.
However, the idea that an individual who is able to work or volunteer should be doing something in exchange for receiving public assistance has been and remains a strongly supported principle in our country. Since the reforms in the 1990’s, this link between work and public assistance has helped reduce the size of the welfare rolls by providing a path for those in need to move towards becoming self sufficient.
Some states, like Colorado, have already moved forward with reforms of their own, throughout its 30-year history, the Colorado SNAP Employment First program has seen 90% of its participants successfully complete the work requirements to receive benefits. I commend the important work this program does for Coloradans and the House-passed reform will build on that and require all states to have these much needed reforms in place.
It is important to note that the just passed House reforms, the federal 1996 welfare reform law, and the Colorado Works program are all designed to give people help when they need it without encouraging anyone to be permanently dependent on the government. Moreover, the projected savings from the House reform bill will come from recipients moving towards self sufficiency and not from arbitrary cuts to the program.
Most people would rather work than rely on government assistance. Most people want to go out and be productive so that they can earn a living, so that they can support their family, and so that they can have hope for a better future. The Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act of 2013, is designed to give help in what is often referred to as a “hand up” instead of a “hand out” to those in need.