Work requirements make the poor poorer

Republicans are holding the economy hostage by refusing to raise the debt ceiling for one reason and one reason only: their determination to slash federal spending and make the poor poorer.

President Biden and House Speaker McCarthy are still negotiating a deal to raise the debt ceiling before June 1, as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned Congress yesterday that it is highly likely that the federal government will run out of money to pay its bills next week. Over the course of negotiations, Republicans have dug in their heels and refused to agree to raise the debt ceiling without also cutting federal spending. But it’s not because they actually want to cut the deficit – after all, they want to cut funding for the IRS, which would serve as a boon to the rich and explode the deficit, and they’re refusing to accept any tax increases on the wealthy at all, even ones that would significantly shrink the deficit.

What they do want to do is cut spending by instituting draconian work requirements on social benefit programs for the poor. Republicans want to introduce new work requirements for recipients of Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The debt limit bill that Republicans passed last month included these requirements, and now Speaker McCarthy is insisting that they be part of the larger deal that Republicans and Democrats are now hashing out to avoid a default.

Over the last week, many Democrats have balked at these work requirement proposals – and expressed frustration with the fact that Biden has said he’s willing to consider them. (He voted in favor of work requirements during his time in the Senate.) When you scratch just below the surface of these proposals, you’ll quickly see that Democrats are right to be critical. Conservatives like to argue that work requirements boost labor force participation and earnings, but in reality, they don’t do anything of the sort. Instead, all the evidence shows they merely serve to further harm vulnerable families, cost governments millions to administer, and fan the flames of harmful and false stereotypes about social benefit recipients.

Work requirements seem to be predicated on the belief that able-bodied, poor people on welfare don’t work and mooch off the government. (President Ronald Reagan popularized this idea through anecdotes about the infamous “welfare queen.”) But that idea is nothing but a myth, as most recipients of social benefits do, in fact, work. Nearly three-quarters of those enrolled in SNAP before the pandemic worked within a year of receiving benefits. Roughly 93% of adult Medicaid recipients are working, caregiving, in school, or have an illness or disability that precludes them from working. In short, the inconvenient truth is that some poor Americans need help from the government not because they aren’t working, but because they simply don’t get paid enough at the jobs they do have to get by.

Work requirements do more harm than good: they don’t increase labor force participation or earnings for low-income Americans and also end up costing governments hefty sums to administer. A 2021 study on the effects of work requirements on SNAP recipients in nine states found no evidence of increased employment or earnings; instead, what they found was that requirements ultimately decreased SNAP participation due to the burdens on recipients of navigating complex bureaucratic red tape. Similar results unfolded in Arkansas in 2018 when lawmakers imposed work requirements on Medicaid recipients. The requirements did not boost employment and nearly 16,000 people lost healthcare coverage primarily because of paperwork complications. Furthermore, despite projections that the initiative would cut spending, it ended up costing the state and federal government a whopping $26.1 million because of the bureaucratic work necessary to enforce requirements.

Some research has found that work requirements do boost employment among social benefit recipients in the short term, but this change fades out rather quickly. In the end, the stressors of poverty make it too difficult for needy Americans to hold on to stable jobs. The precarious nature of low-wage work in America, discrimination, unexpected financial emergencies, and lack of guaranteed childcare all make it very difficult for the working poor to find work and keep work.

If lawmakers really want to boost employment and earnings among the poor, then all available evidence suggests that they should institute social safety net programs without work requirements. For example, results from an experiment in Stockton, California found that giving basic income support to low-income families boosted their participation in the workforce without any work requirements. When people have enough money to cover essentials (particularly childcare) and weather storms, they are much more likely to be able to show up to a job (or job training) on a regular basis. People need basic levels of money and support in order to make money.

In short, poor people are not mooching off the government – they are in desperate need of all the help that they can get. Contrary to popular belief, they are working and want to have better jobs and skills, but can’t because poverty and misguided initiatives like work requirements keep knocking them down.

The debt ceiling issue is coming down to the wire now. If this fight isn’t resolved in time, the financial fallout will be catastrophic. But there’s no need to do it on the backs of those already suffering the most in America.

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