It’s been nine years since the Great Recession. Stock markets are at all-time highs. The national economy is booming. Minority unemployment is at record lows. Even Illinois is riding the nation’s coattails with a record-low unemployment rate of 3.9 percent.
If Illinois can’t help get single, childless, able-bodied Illinoisans back into meaningful work and off of food stamps now, then when?
That’s the question Illinois politicians and policymakers should be asking in the face of new federal rules for single, able-bodied citizens currently on food stamps. The changes restrict the ability of states like Illinois to continue waiving the program’s work requirements, meaning nearly 700,000 current recipients nationally will have to work or be in training at least 20 hours a week to continue to receive benefits. In Illinois, the number affected is estimated to be between 90,000 and 140,000.
But Illinois pols don’t seem to be interested in that question. Instead, they are busy defending why Illinois should continue to exempt able-bodied residents from the part-time work or training requirements. Gov. J.B. Pritzker called the waiver changes “cruel” and “denying food to the most vulnerable people in our society.”
First, the new requirements change nothing about the actual work requirements for individuals. Single, able-bodied individuals must still work and/or participate in a work program for 80 hours a month, or participate in workfare, in order to receive SNAP for more than three months in a three-year period.
The only thing that’s changing are the rules that allow states to get a waiver from those work requirements.
Second, Pritzker is ignoring the fact that every one of Illinois’ neighbors has shrunk its food-stamp enrollment to where it was a decade ago, or far lower. In contrast, Illinois’ enrollment has gone up.
Iowa and Wisconsin have reduced their levels back down to what they were in 2009. Missouri has done even more, cutting enrollment by 20 percent compared with 2009. And Indiana and Kentucky have reduced their enrollment by 30 percent over the same time period.
Meanwhile, Illinois has added 250,000 residents to its rolls, up 17 percent, since 2009. Illinois has headed entirely in the wrong direction.
In fact, Illinoisans’ continued participation in SNAP is an outlier compared to most states. About 14 percent of all Illinois residents are enrolled in food stamps, which is the seventh-highest participation rate in the nation.
None of Illinois’ neighbors come close to that. Indiana’s rate is just 7.7 percent. If Illinois could just get its participation rate down to 10 percent — the average of our neighbors — over 500,000 fewer people would be on food stamps.
And contrary to what Pritzker and others may think, our neighbors’ reduction hasn’t resulted in joblessness and “cruelty.” All of them except Kentucky have managed to drop their unemployment rates to levels below that of Illinois.
Instead of protesting, Illinois politicians should treat the Trump administration’s changes as impetus to help as many single, able-bodied Illinoisans as possible get off SNAP and into meaningful employment or training programs.
More position-matching could help, as there are jobs waiting to be filled in Illinois. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports there are over 7 million unfilled jobs across the country. Based on share of population, Illinois would have about 300,000 of those unfilled jobs.
If Pritzker really wants to champion the residents who rely on food stamps, he would focus on passing the economic and spending reforms that would create hundreds of thousands of more jobs, helping lift those people out of government dependency.
Instead, his only plan is a slew of higher taxes on Illinoisans and job creators.