How Intentional Design Increased Dependence on Food Stamps and Undermined Work

Mary C. Mayhew

Today, more than 45 million people in America receive food stamps through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). With an increase of 27 million since 2000, and now with one out of every six people in our country on food stamps, it is time to examine honestly both the program’s failings and the misguided policies that have promoted dependence over independence and economic opportunity.

Welfare advocates and the federal government will argue that this was caused entirely by the “Great Recession,” but that argument falls short. While economic slumps drove some enrollment, this unprecedented spike in dependence on government was facilitated by intentional design in Washington, D.C. The federal government established several destructive “waivers,” including one that allows able-bodied adults with no children to avoid work and stay on food stamps over the long term.

Regrettably, most states, including Maine prior to the administration of Gov. LePage, took the bait. The federal promise of a lighter “administrative burden” and cash rewards for “performance bonuses” spurred states to waive meaningful welfare reforms like work requirements and time limits. Now nearly one in every four SNAP households nationwide is comprised solely of an able-bodied working-age adult with no children. [1] The average SNAP recipient in Maine has been on the program for more than seven years. [2] Other waivers allow states to require notification of income changes and household composition only once every six months instead of (like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Medicaid) when changes occur and to waive asset limits on households. In Maine, waiver of the asset test has led to million-dollar lottery winners staying on SNAP. [3] These various efforts by the federal government have paved the pathways to enrollment, often at the expense of program integrity, and have redefined success as based on ever-increasing welfare caseloads, not on the number of individuals leaving welfare for jobs and self-sufficiency.

Worse still is the cumulative effect of these welfare policies on our deeply rooted culture of a strong work ethic, family commitment, and personal responsibility. President Franklin Roosevelt said in his 1935 State of the Union address that “continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole our relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.” [4] We cannot turn a blind eye to the destructive impact that these policies have had on the workforce and the work ethic.

We talk about the American dream but then design welfare programs that trap people in a nightmare of poverty, dependence, and despair. That’s the bad news.

The good news? These dependence-producing waivers are optional for states, and a few states are eliminating them to return able-bodied adults to work, verify income and assets, and prioritize program integrity. Maine is proud to be part of this common-sense, employment-focused reform movement.

As Commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, I have witnessed firsthand the value and importance of a job to those we serve. Employment develops self-esteem, a sense of worth, and a real pathway out of poverty. A taxpayer-funded welfare benefit loaded on an EBT card is no substitute for the human dignity and pride that comes from earning a living and being financially independent.

Employment-focused outcomes must become the foundation for SNAP and all other welfare programs in our country. Time limits and work requirements are critical. It is working in Maine.

  • We have reinstated the work requirement for able-bodied adults and have seen incomes rise by 114 percent in just the first year for that group as people leave welfare for employment. [5]
  • Overall, Maine was first in the nation for decline in food stamp enrollment in 2014–2015, and our economy has received a boost as these individuals move into jobs in an economy with the lowest unemployment rate in 15 years.
  • Since 2012, Maine has experienced a 23 percent reduction in food stamp enrollment.

These common-sense reforms are grounded in our fundamental belief that welfare should be a temporary stop, not a way of life, for Mainers. More people receiving welfare means more people living in poverty, which is nothing short of failure.

It is time for our states and country to rise to the challenge and reorient a safety-net program that has lost its way and become a maze of dependence. Let’s get it moving in the right direction: toward opportunity, jobs, and self-sufficiency.

Mary C. Mayhew is Commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services in the state of Maine.

Next Up in the Poverty and Dependence Section:

TANF Participation


1. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Office of Policy Support, Characteristics of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Households: Fiscal Year 2014, Report Number SNAP-15-CHAR, December 2015, (accessed May 28, 2016).

2. Internal DHHS research done by query of Automated Client Eligibility System (ACES) data system, January 2016.

3. Dave Sherwood, “People on Public Assistance Spent Hundreds of Millions on the Lottery — and Took Home $22 Million in Winnings,” Pine Tree Watchdog, December 16, 2015, (accessed June 7, 2016), and DHHS, “Maine-Welfare-Lottery-Winners-2010–2014,” November 2015, (accessed June 7, 2016).

4. Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Annual Message to Congress,” January 4, 1935,
 (accessed May 28, 2016).

5. Paul Leparulo, “Preliminary Analysis of Work Requirement Policy on the Wage and Employment Experiences of ABAWDs in Maine, April 19, 2016, Maine Office of Policy and Management, (accessed June 7, 2016).

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