Requiring able-bodied people to work in exchange for government benefits is a popular idea. It’s a proven way to reduce dependency and break the cycle of poverty. And in the case of the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — what used to be called food stamps — it’s also the law.

So why are so few SNAP recipients gainfully employed? Because the laws in question are complex, permissive, and inconsistently enforced.

For starters, there are actually two different work requirements — and neither really reflects the commonly accepted definitions of “work” and “requirement.” Under current federal law, childless able-bodied recipients under 50 must spend at least 20 hours a week either working, receiving job training, or volunteering. (The age cap is scheduled to rise to 54 over the next few years.) For other SNAP recipients who aren’t already working at least 30 hours a week and are below the age of 59 (including parents whose children are older than five) they are required to participate in an employment-and-training program if their state assigns them to one.

In practice, few SNAP recipients are consistently employed in full-time jobs. Angela Rachidi, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, has carefully studied the data from federal surveys. She found that “the overwhelming majority” of SNAP-recipient households contain no workers at all. Among those that do contain workers, most work only part-time and only part of each year. Just 6% reported being employed at least 40 hours a week at the time they were receiving SNAP benefits.

A big part of the story here is that the same federal laws that “require” work give state governments the authority to exempt large swaths of their SNAP caseloads from the mandates. North Carolina is far from the worst offender here, but neither have we done all we can to get recipients working.

Rep. Kristin Baker, R-Cabarrus, has filed legislation to address the problem. House Bill 747 would tighten the criteria for exceptions in North Carolina. Able-bodied recipients would be required to attend job training or seek employment unless they are parents caring for young or disabled dependents, students attending school or college, or individuals receiving treatment for addiction.

The bill passed the North Carolina House in May by a 113-3 vote. It has yet to reach the Senate floor.

Some critics insist that our state, like others with sizable rural populations, should continue to exempt recipients who live in “labor surplus” areas and thus may struggle to find work. I find their argument unpersuasive.

According to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for July 2023, North Carolina’s headline unemployment rate is 3.3%. While the rates do vary by county and metropolitan area, the vast majority of able-bodied North Carolinians live in or near communities where jobs or training programs are available — or, more the point, are capable of moving to such locations. As Hayden Dublois of the Foundation for Government Accountability put it in a policy paper last year, employment and training programs “may be underutilized, but that is not because they are inaccessible. It is because states simply are not assigning individuals to them.”

It’s time for North Carolina to do so. We do our low-income neighbors no favors by structuring our welfare programs in a way that discourages the very behaviors we know to be necessary for economic mobility.

Among those who complete high school, defer parenthood until marriage, and live in a household with at least one full-time worker, the poverty rate is 3%. For those who follow none of these steps in the Success Sequence, the poverty rate is 52%. While most individuals have it within their power to follow these rules, public policies often make it harder rather than easier to do so. We should provide better educational opportunities, to be sure. And when we provide public assistance to the truly needy, we should be careful not to discourage marriage, personal responsibility, and full-time employment.

Work requirements for able-bodied recipients strike most North Carolinians as common sense. They’re right.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, Mountain Folk and Forest Folk, combine epic fantasy with early American history.