In a sign of a recovering economy, Republican Governor Paul LePage of Maine is sending welfare recipients back to work. LePage announced that the economy has improved enough that he will no longer seek a waiver from federal requirements for able-bodied food stamp recipients to fulfill work requirements.

It’s a move that those on the right and the left support and hope that other governors will follow.

The food stamp program (officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP) is a federal program that is administered by each state. If you remember, a cornerstone of welfare reform in the 1990s was to get recipients back to work through such requirements. Despite attempts to water them down, work requirements have stuck around. That means adults 18 to 49 years old who have no dependents, are not pregnant, and are not disabled must either work at least 20 hours a week or volunteer for a community agency.

During the recent recession, the federal government granted states waivers for those who could not find work because of the economy. All but four states took that offer during at least some years of the recession. Maine used the waiver for the past six years, but with the state’s economic recovery, its governor thinks it’s time for those who can to return to work. LePage will not apply for a waiver for another year.

The Portland Press Herald reports:

“We must continue to do all that we can to eliminate generational poverty and get people back to work,” LePage said in a statement announcing the change, which would take effect Oct. 1. “We must protect our limited resources for those who are truly in need and who are doing all they can to be self-sufficient.”

DHHS has identified 12,000 current recipients in Maine who fit that definition. They represent about 5 percent of all food stamp recipients and collectively receive about $15 million per year in benefits, or about 4.4 percent of all food stamp dollars that come to Maine. It’s not known how many of these would fail to satisfy the work requirement.

It’s not clear whether Maine would still be eligible for the waiver for an additional year, given the improvements in the job market and unemployment rate. But the LePage administration does not plan to apply.

Maine’s unemployment rate reached a six-year low of 5.1 percent in June after peaking at 9.7 percent in early 2010, a sign that the economy has improved. But the rate remains high in some rural areas and Maine has recovered only 63 percent of jobs lost during the recession, compared to 106 percent nationally, according to Maine Bureau of Labor statistics from April.

Governor LePage should be commended for his efforts to be a good steward of taxpayer resources. Food stamps and other benefits afforded Americans who fall on hard times make up our social safety net. And that net should be temporary and flexible, adjusting to our economic realities.

In a chapter of IWF’s forthcoming book Lean Together: An Agenda for Smarter Government, Stronger Communities, And More Opportunity for Women, we delve into entitlements and smart reforms that can ensure our social safety net is a springboard and not a spider web for Americans. Stronger enforcement of welfare-to-work requirements is one of those reforms.

Most Americans support the government helping those who need help, when they need help. When that help cripples individuals and leads them to a life of government dependency, that’s a problem. Kudos to LePage for ensuring that Maine residents don’t fall into the government dependency trap but ride the economic recovery to stability and financial independence.