Idaho welfare benefits are low, rival entry-level pay, says think tank

adutton@idahostatesman.comAugust 19, 2013 

Idaho has the fourth-lowest level of welfare benefits in the nation, according to a new report from the Cato Institute, a free-market, individual liberty and limited-government think tank based in Washington, D.C.

A "typical welfare family" in Idaho consisting of a single mother and two children would earn welfare benefits equal to the take-home income from a job that pays $11,150, the report said.

That's about what a minimum-wage job would pay, at 30 hours a week, 52 weeks a year.

The report argues that Idahoans will choose to use welfare benefits instead of working.

It said states could shrink the gap between welfare and work by making cuts to welfare benefits and tightening eligibility requirements. State legislatures and Congress also should make changes to welfare work rules, it said.

There currently are 72 federally funded programs that provide cash or other benefits to low-income people, Cato said. The report looked only at seven of those programs, including cash assistance, Medicaid and food stamps.

About 322,288 people in Idaho — 20 percent of the population — received cash, Medicaid, food stamps and/or child-care assistance in June 2012, according to the latest annual report from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

Work versus welfare

“One of the single best ways to climb out of poverty is taking a job, but as long as Idaho’s welfare program provides a standard of living comparable to many entry-level jobs, recipients will continue to choose it over work,” said Michael Tanner, a senior fellow for Cato who wrote the report. “Idahoans who receive welfare aren’t lazy, and they’re not stupid either. Until Boise and Washington, D.C., take serious steps to reduce welfare dependence and reward work, there will be little incentive for welfare-reliant individuals to enter the workforce.”

The inflation-adjusted dollar value of a full package of public assistance has decreased by $7,964 since 1995 — about 31 percent — the report said. The full package would be valued at $17,766 per year.

Meanwhile, the pre-tax wage that would be needed to match those benefits has decreased by $16,048 — about 59 percent — since then.

The value of each benefit

Cato broke down how much annual dollar value it placed on each benefit in Idaho:

  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which provides cash benefits, is worth $3,708.
  • The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, otherwise known as food stamps, is worth $6,312.
  • Medicaid, the state- and federally-funded health insurance program, is worth $6,012.
  • The Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program that provides nutrition funds and services is worth $884.
  • Housing assistance is not included for Idaho. The report noted that virtually no Idahoans who receive TANF also receive housing assistance.
  • Utilities assistance through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program is worth $550.
  • The Emergency Food Assistance Program is worth $300.

In Idaho, some of those benefits are used primarily by children, low-income elderly and people with disabilities — people who are unlikely to work a full-time job.

For example, about 15 percent of Idahoans are on Medicaid. About 75 percent of them are children. Another 16 percent are adults with "intense needs, both for behavioral health and medical services," or they are "elderly and also have greater needs for medical services [and] long-term care such as assisted living facilities or nursing homes," according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

The Cato study included only spending on low-income individuals and families, not long-term care spending, the report said.

Other benefits are offered to adults who can work. Food stamps — SNAP benefits — are available to low-income Idahoans with assets worth less than $5,000. Recipients must participate in a work-search program unless they have an exemption. The average per-person food-stamp allotment in Idaho was $128 in June 2012, according to the department.

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