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From Congress, a nudge for self-reliance

As President Obama again seeks bipartisan solutions from Congress after his State of the Union speech, he can note one reform nearing passage: Support for states to nudge food stamp recipients into job training and jobs.

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    Maggie Barcellano sits down for dinner with her daughter, Zoe, 3, in Austin, Texas Jan. 25. Barcellano, who lives with her father, enrolled in the food stamps program to help save up for paramedic training while she works as a home health aide and raises her daughter. Working-age people now make up the majority in US households that rely on food stamps, a switch from a few years ago when children and the elderly were the main recipients.
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After his State of the Union message, President Obama need not wait too long to embrace a good example of bipartisanship. Tucked inside a farm bill headed for passage in Congress is a reform aimed at nudging food stamp recipients into well-paying jobs.

If it works as well as a 1996 welfare-to-work reform embraced by President Clinton, Mr. Obama might even claim it as part of his legacy. And the effort could be added to a list of new ways that advanced countries have found to reduce high joblessness by encouraging self-reliance among many of those dependent on government aid.

The provision will give $200 million to 10 states to test new types of work requirements for food stamp recipients who are able-bodied and of working age. The provision is badly needed because the program, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, has ballooned over the past decade. It now covers 1 in 7 Americans. And for the first time, working-age people make up a majority of households that receive food stamps. More than a quarter of recipients have some college education, far more than in the past.

Wealthier countries have long struggled to fine-tune their social safety nets to be compassionate in meeting the real needs of those trapped in a sluggish economy but not complicitous in allowing a certain number of working-age recipients to feel comfortable living off taxpayers’ money. Most of the political tension in democracies pivots around this struggle between helping others and the risk of creating dependency among a portion of those on assistance.

One striking example of elected leaders finding common ground was the 1996 “workfare” reform in which Bill Clinton and a Republican-led Congress put time limits on welfare benefits and tightened requirements for recipients to find work. The measure helped reduce welfare rolls from 12.3 million people a month to 4.1 million in 2012.

The lesson was stark: Poverty is not intractable if we change our assumptions about the capacity of people to retrain themselves and find work with support. The poor may always be among us but perhaps not the same poor. And we need not give up trying new methods to lift them up.

In the United States, state governments are best at providing support and also applying the right pressure on food stamp recipients to retrain themselves and seek out a job. A 2013 study of welfare-to-work programs in 23 wealthy nations by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that local flexibility and a personalized approach are the best ways to assist disadvantaged individuals into the workplace.

Helping people back to work requires a “coach” who will see them as “partners” in mapping their ambitions, expectations, and competencies, the study found. Social workers should see clients as “a total and unique person with his/her own aspirations and characteristics” and “stimulate” them to set realistic goals for training and employment.

Not every state does this well. The $200 million in federal money for pilot programs can improve a system that, while not broken, certainly needs fixing. The 1996 reform worked well for the the general welfare program. Now it can be steadily extended to food stamps.

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