Illinois is the dependency capital of the Midwest. No other state in the region has more of its population dependent on food stamps, even though we have less poverty than many of our neighbors. So what’s driving the state’s dependency crisis? State bureaucrats using loopholes and gimmicks to keep more people dependent on welfare.
According to the Illinois Department of Human Services, nearly 175,000 able-bodied childless adults are on the program. These are adults in their prime working years — between the ages of 18 and 49 — with no dependent children and no disabilities keeping them from meaningful employment. But according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, just one in five works at all.
In 1996, President Clinton signed a welfare overhaul designed to move millions of Americans from welfare to work. Under the law, able-bodied childless adults were expected to work, train, or volunteer at least part time as a condition of receiving food stamps. In the 22 years since, Illinois has never fully implemented the requirement.
Instead, the state has relied upon loopholes and gimmicks to trap more and more able-bodied adults in dependency. Federal law allows states to seek temporary waivers of the work requirement in areas with unemployment rates above 10 percent or with a demonstrated lack of job opportunities in the region.
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But at 4.8 percent, Illinois’ unemployment rate is near historic lows. Some counties have unemployment rates as low as 2.7 percent and none have rates meeting the 10 percent threshold. While there’s still work to be done to improve the state’s economy, the kind of statewide economic recession that might make waiving the work requirement necessary is nowhere to be found. In fact, our unemployment rate is lower today than it was when President Clinton signed these reforms into law.
Despite near record low unemployment, the state argues that there is a lack of available jobs — demonstrated by its claim that 101 counties had “an aggregate average unemployment rate 20 percent above the national average.” The problem: only 39 of the state’s counties have a current unemployment rate 20 percent above the national average. In order to support its claims, the Illinois Department of Human Services did two things: it used old data and it gerrymandered the request in whatever way was necessary to keep more able-bodied adults on welfare.
The data used to support the waiver request dated as far back as April 2015 — nearly three years ago — despite the fact that newer data was available at the time the state made its request. It also grouped all counties except DuPage County into a single area. Although federal rules allow states to group counties together, such groupings must be part of the same economic region, based on shared industries and other factors. Based on the waiver, the Illinois Department of Human Services apparently thinks the state has only two regions: DuPage County and everywhere else. The waiver treats Belleville and Bolingbrook, Chicago and Cairo, Marion and Moline as if all are part of the same economic region.
State bureaucrats have gamed the system and as a result, thousands of able-bodied adults will remain trapped in dependency, with little hope of better lives.
Thankfully, these gimmicks may not survive much longer. In February, the Trump administration announced that it would be reviewing and updating the regulations that Illinois bureaucrats have exploited.
The Trump administration understands that work is critically important to achieving self-sufficiency. After work requirements were implemented in other states, those leaving welfare went back to work in more than 600 different industries and their incomes more than doubled on average. Better yet, higher wages more than offset lost welfare benefits, leaving them financially better off.
State bureaucrats say they need more time to implement these work requirements. But they’ve had more than 7,850 days. How much more time do they really need?
Jonathan Ingram is the vice president of research at the Foundation for Government Accountability and a lifelong Illinois resident.