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Welfare work requirements is a topic that hasn't gotten much attention on the 2016 campaign trail. But while candidates vie for national office, state-level lawmakers are making important strides in reforming means-tested welfare programs.

In Maine, when Republican Gov. Paul LePage instituted work requirements for able-bodied adults without children or other dependents (ABAWD) in order to receive food stamps, the number of welfare recipients in that cohort fell by 80%.

But a new report from the conservative Heritage Foundation puts Maine's success into the context of national welfare expenditures.

RICHMOND, CA - NOVEMBER 01: Richmond Emergency Food Bank volunteer Abdul Olorode packs boxes with food to be handed out to needy people on November 1, 2013 in Richmond, California. An estimated 47 million Americans will see their food stamp benefits cut starting today as temporary relief to the federal program ends with no new budget from Congress to replace it. Under the new Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program (SNAP), a family of four that used to receive $668 per month will see that amount cut by $36. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Justin Sullivan/Getty

As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, President Obama's major stimulus package, restrictions on ABAWD participating in food stamp programs were lifted unless states specifically chose to impose work requirements.

Separate from the Recovery Act were additional statewide waivers of ABAWD restrictions. Maine, under then-Gov. John Baldacci (D), was one of dozens of states that applied for the waiver.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, ABAWDs receiving food stamps each month grew from 1.9 million in 2008 to 2.8 million in 2009, as a result of the recession.

But after the Obama Administration issued work waivers, the number of ABAWDs on the food stamp rolls jumped to approximately 4.7 million by 2014:

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Further, according to calculations from the Heritage Foundation, ABAWDs use their discretionary income in what Heritage considers “counterproductive or non-essential purposes.”

For example, Heritage notes that over 50% of ABAWDs smoke daily, and argues:

“Food stamp benefits allow these individuals to divert cash resources from food purchases to cigarettes.”

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In Maine, Republican Gov. Paul LePage first announced the state will no longer seek a federal waiver for able-bodied adults to receive food stamps without work requirements in July 2014.

At the time LePage said:

“People who are in need deserve a hand up, but we should not be giving able-bodied individuals a handout. ...

"We must protect our limited resources for those who are truly in need and who are doing all they can to be self-sufficient.”

Today, all able-bodied adults without dependents in Maine are now required to take a job, participate in state-facilitated job training, or perform community service in order to continue receiving food stamp benefits.

In the first three months after LePage's policy went into effect, ABAWD caseload fell nearly 80%, from 13,332 recipients in December 2014 to 2,678 in March 2015, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services via the Heritage Foundation.

By September, the number of recipients fell even further:

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When LePage announced Maine would no longer receive the waiver, local reporting noted that about 231,000 Mainers received a total of $330 million in food stamp benefits in July 2014.

Nearly 15,000 of those recipients were considered able-bodied adults without dependents, 12,000 of whom did not meet the work requirement but received about $15 million a year in benefits. By September 2015, slightly less than 12,000 ended up dropping from Maine's food stamp program.

The savings from dropping those thousands of adults from the food stamp program in Maine doesn't sound like much considering federal funding of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — the official name of the nation's food stamp program — increased from $29 billion in 2004 to about $83 billion in 2013.

While that amount is projected to fall over the next ten years, according to a recent House of Representatives report on mandatory spending, food stamp funding:

“Remains at elevated levels compared to pre-recession projections.”

Small gains in individual states can provide valuable examples of reform and trial-and-error for the nation. Maine took its role as a laboratory of democracy seriously. It remains to be seen if the 2016 candidates were paying attention.

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