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Beltway Liberals Are Playing Name Games to Expand the Welfare State

Washington Examiner

May 8, 2024

Higher prices aren’t the only kind of inflation coming out of Washington these days. Wildly inflated group names are on the rise, too — and they’re being used as a tool to expand government welfare benefits given even to able-bodied adults without dependents.

That’s the term long used by the Department of Agriculture to describe those in their prime working years who are not disabled, not living with a minor, and not pregnant, among other criteria. Since the 1990s, ABAWDs have faced more stringent standards for collecting food stamps than single parents, disabled individuals, and the elderly. Unlike those groups, ABAWDs are generally expected to work or participate in education or training for at least 20 hours per week to continue collecting food stamps after a few months on the rolls.

The part-time “work requirement” is a legacy left by welfare reforms signed into law in 1996 by then-President Bill Clinton and supported then by majorities of both parties in Congress.

A generation later, most people, including most Democrats, still think that makes sense. A February 2023 YouGov poll found that “two-thirds of Americans (68%) say that people who receive assistance from welfare programs in the U.S. should be required to work or participate in job training programs if they are able to.” Democrats (64%) and independents (61%) strongly agreed.

An April 2023 ballot measure in Wisconsin, a swing state, showed even greater support for work requirements for “able-bodied, childless adults.” Almost 80% of Wisconsin voters said they should at least “look for work in order to receive taxpayer-funded welfare benefits.”

But policymakers in Washington are, unsurprisingly, out of step with popular opinion. A recent Brookings Institution seminar sunnily titled “Securing the safety net for working-age adults” makes clear that inside-the-Beltway liberals think the terms “able-bodied” and “without dependents” are far too rosy. Their first order of business, in fact, is to replace ABAWD with a title that better conveys a desperation for government benefits.

At the seminar, Neera Tanden, domestic policy adviser to President Joe Biden and former head of the Center for American Progress, summarized the desire to change “the fundamental framework and narrative” in order to reshape “people’s understanding about who this population is.”

Wendy Edelberg of the Brookings Institution called ABAWD a “misnomer” and suggested the group really constituted “low-income working-age adults who do not have dependent children and who do not receive disability-related benefits.”

Sharon Parrott of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities called them “non-elderly adults without minor children at home who don’t at least now receive disability benefits,” while readily admitting that this “was a mouthful.”

Longtime policy expert Robert Greenstein suggested this group is constituted of “poor, non-elderly adults who are not raising children and do not receive disability benefits.”

Naturally, proponents didn’t offer the risible acronyms that would accompany those lengthy titles if one ever made it into federal law: LIWAAWDNHDCAWDNRDRB, NEAWMCAHWDALNRDB, and PNEAWANRCADNRDB, respectively.

But regardless of the new acronym or title, their message was clear — single adults capable of work deserve far more government benefits. No longer cast as “able-bodied,” there’s no presumption of working to stand in the way of benefit collection. Instead, the group is simply “poor” or “low-income” and thus deserving of more taxpayer-paid benefits.

Some noted that, despite being “without dependents” or “minor children at home,” many are noncustodial parents, as if that status should merit new benefits. That they are “at least now” “without disability benefits” or “government-determined disabilities” suggests that, despite being fit for employment, many really belong on disability rolls that already count 12 million U.S. adults.
Liberals’ policy “solutions” are sadly predictable. They not only want the part-time work requirement eliminated, but they also want the rebranded group to qualify for new federal benefit checks, even if they are not working. Never mind, as Greenstein admitted of past “general assistance” programs for childless adults, that “states have scaled back these programs sharply or eliminated them altogether” in recent decades. Despite the federal government’s growing debt and inability to afford current benefit promises, federal taxpayers should pick up this large new tab, too.

In the end, the proposed new titles are more than just “a mouthful.” They reflect how, for a growing number of liberals, the American dream of progress through work should be replaced with guaranteed government benefits, even for adults capable of working.

That used to be a fringe view, such as when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) suggested in her Green New Deal that even adults “unwilling to work” deserve government-provided economic security. But it has now entered the liberal mainstream, promoted by those who dubiously think that replacing ABAWD with LIWAAWDNHDCAWDNRDRB somehow helps make their case.