Does Idaho welfare really keep adults from working?

adutton@idahostatesman.comAugust 23, 2013 

A report issued this week from the Cato Institute argued that six of Idaho's welfare programs, including federal programs the state administers, are keeping Idahoans out of the workforce.

The libertarian think tank based in Washington, D.C., placed a value of more than $17,000 on welfare benefits for a single mother with two children. Cato put that on par with a job that pays about $11,000, supplemented by tax credits.

Though it placed Idaho at No. 4 in the nation for lowest welfare payments, the organization — an opponent of taxpayer-funded welfare — said Idaho and federal lawmakers should cut benefits or better enforce work requirements.

The Cato Institute did not answer questions from the Statesman about whether its analysis considered welfare recipients' ability to work.

An author of the Cato report, Michael Tanner, wrote in a column that "fewer than 42 percent of recipients are participating in broadly defined 'work activities,'" adding that, "although it would be nice to raise the wages of entry-level service workers, the government has no ability to do so. (Attempts to mandate wage increases, such as increases in the minimum wage, primarily result in fewer such jobs.)"

So, how many people on public assistance programs are already working, and how many would be unable to work if they lost benefits?

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare on Thursday provided the Statesman a breakdown of three programs — those with the highest dollar values, according to Cato — showing how many recipients are already employed and/or working-age adults without disabilities.

Nearly half the Idaho adults on food stamps — the highest-value program, according to Cato — in June were either employed or receiving temporary unemployment after losing jobs. The other two highest-value programs mainly benefit children.

Just over half the adults on two other programs were of working age. About one-fifth of those adults had jobs.

Food stamps: Worth $6,312 a year

About 227,000 people in Idaho received food stamps as of June. About 63 percent were children, people with disabilities or elderly. The other 37 percent — 83,990 people — were working-age adults.

Of those working-age adults on food stamps, 45 percent were employed or receiving unemployment benefits, which are paid to people who have lost a job and are seeking work.

The remaining 55 percent must, by law, be hunting for a job or in job training, the department said. (The federal government allows some exemptions, such as women in the third trimester of pregnancy or parents caring for children younger than six.)

Medicaid: Worth $6,012 a year

Some states offer the taxpayer-funded health insurance program to poor adults. Idaho is not one of those states.

There were about 245,000 people on Idaho Medicaid in June, the department said. Almost all were children, adults with disabilities or elderly adults.

The rest, less than 9 percent, were working-age adults without a developmental or other disability. About 18,000 of those adults were parents with income below 20 percent of the poverty line — less than $3,000 a year for a two-person family. About 4,000 were low-income pregnant women with income up to 133 percent of poverty — $20,628 for a mother and unborn child.

The state does not collect employment information from Medicaid recipients, the department said.

Cash benefits: Worth $3,708 a year

Idaho's version of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program gives cash support to families with minor children. The program pays a maximum of $309 per month, for up to 24 months, regardless of how large the family is.

There were 1,829 families on the Temporary Assistance for Families in Idaho program in June. But in 1,644 of those cases, the benefits were for children. Typically, those children are under a relative's care because the parents are incarcerated or have substance abuse problems, the department said.

The rest — 10 percent — were either single-parent or two-parent families. They are required to spend at least 30 hours a week looking for work, doing job training or other activities meant to lead to employment.

The TAFI program also offers those adults help with entering the workforce, the department said.

Help with utility bills: Worth $550 a year

In the fiscal year that just ended, 139,093 people in 43,754 families received benefits from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, according to the Community Action Partnership Association of Idaho.

About 81,400 of those individuals were of working age — older than 18, younger than 70. Of those, 17,765 had income from a job. That doesn't include people who have jobs as well was income from another source, such as Social Security or veteran's benefits.

Emergency food: Worth $300 a year

The association said 101,937 people in 31,339 families received emergency food from a community action agency in the last fiscal year.

But only 66,614 were of working age. Of those, 12,302 had income from a job.

What the state's welfare agency says

A spokesman for the Department of Health and Welfare said the story about Cato's report "elicited quite a few reader comments that we found interesting."

The department "provides many of the public assistance supports for people who are unemployed or low-income," said Tom Shanahan, public information manager for the department. "However, we are the first ones who will tell you that public assistance programs alone are not the answer. We must include integrated and supportive services that help families get into and stay in the workforce to take advantage of new opportunities unfolding as the economy improves, so people can pave their own path out of poverty and into the mainstream of Idaho’s economy."

Audrey Dutton: 377-6448, @IDS_Audrey

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