A Litmus Test for Safety Net Policies

May 18, 2017

We all, I’m sure, know how people on “welfare,” i.e. receiving virtually any safety net benefit, are often bad-mouthed.

We know too that the process of gaining benefits and keeping them often subjects recipients to requirements and hassles that we’d never imposed on better-off people.

The humiliations and inconveniences deter some eligible people from applying — a feature, not a bug in some state and local systems.

But exclusion from the mainstream has other consequences, say the coauthors of another of the recently-published poverty reduction papers I mentioned the other day.
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We obviously need reforms to reflect current facts—notably, the make-up of the poverty population. But Professors Kathryn Edin, Luke Schaefer and Laura Tach argue that we need something more to make our investments as effective as possible.

They propose a “litmus test” for anti-poverty policies. These, they say, should foster a sense of inclusion. That will not only accord beneficiaries the dignity they deserve, but help motivate them to act in ways that benefit them, their communities and our society as a whole.

They use the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit as a prime example. Not perfect, as they say, because it benefits only lower-income adults with paying jobs—and, as they don’t say, does very little for those who don’t have children living with them.

But their study of how EITC recipients spent their refunds found that they spend them “remarkably responsibly,” e.g,. to pay off debt, buy things that will last and, in their view at least, contribute to upward mobility.

Edin et al. cite two reasons for behaviors generally viewed as responsible. First, the refunds hinge on paying work — a core American value. So when prospective beneficiaries seek to claim it,, they’re treated respectfully, just as better-off filers are.

The second reason is that they can choose how they’ll spend their annual cash infusion, rather than having the choice made for them, as for example, SNAP (the food stamp program) does.

This, the coauthors say, is empowering. That in itself, one infers, contributes to responsible behaviors.

Perhaps, they say, their litmus test should extend to programs that depend on donations. Some I’m familiar with not only treat their clients with respectfully, but offer programs to empower them.

Perhaps you also know some too — and some that would flunk the litmus test. I and your fellow viewers, I think, would welcome personal stories, other examples, etc. posted here as comments.


New Answers to Who Is Poor in America

May 15, 2017

Recent mail included not only the usual junk, requests for donations and bills, but a magazine from Stanford University’s Center on Poverty and Inequality. Such a surprise, since I hadn’t ordered it. And such an informative and thought-provoking issue.

It’s a series of what it terms “blueprints” for ending poverty, prefaced by two framing papers. One presents key facts that reforms should reflect, the other a litmus tests for them.

They seem to me more groundbreaking than the blueprints, fine as those are. So I’ll focus on the first—and more meaty — here. Will follow up with the second soon.

More Jobless, Childless Adults

The authors present two facts that indicate a changing structure in U.S. poverty.

They’re often ignored because they’re at the margins of our safety net programs and so would be harder to accommodate than, say, much-needed reforms in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. (Unintentionally confirming this, none of the blueprints addressed them.)

The first is the ongoing increase in jobless poverty — more specifically, the unemployment rate for working-age adults. Many are probably “disconnected,” i.e., not looking for work and so not counted in the reported rate.

It rises during recessions, of course. But in good times, as well as bad, working-age adults who don’t have children living with them — often referred to as childless — have dropped out of the labor market.

More in Dire Poverty

So the poverty population as a whole is becoming “a more deprived and destitute class”—not just poor, but deeply so, i.e., living on incomes less than half the poverty threshold or even the extreme $2.00 a day poverty. This is the second key fact.

But our safety net programs don’t reflect it, for several reasons. One is that they’re work-based. TANF, for example, aims to increase the training that will gain participants jobs. The Earned Income Tax Credit is only for people who’ve earned money by working.

The programs are also family-based. TANF, of course, is only for parents who’ve got children living with them. The EITC favors married couples with children and sets a very low maximum benefit for the childless.

Opportunities Out of Reach

The third key fact differs from the others because it’s not directly a change in the structure of our poverty population. The authors refer to it as the “commodification of opportunity”—a fancy term for several developments that help account for poverty.

They include low and unpredictable wages for both workers in regular jobs who’ve got, at most, a high school education and the growing number in the gig economy, e.g., Uber drivers, temp agency employees.

Two other developments have to do with the composition of the poverty population. One is the growing share who are Hispanic. Another, closely related is the share who are immigrants.

They’re at high risk not only because many are undocumented and so justifiably fear complaining of wage theft. Most who are legally here don’t become eligible for major safety net benefits for their first five years.

And however long they’ve been here, a goodly number have limited job opportunities because they speak little or no English.

Still another and again related development is increasing neighborhood segregation. The authors focus here on research on children who grow up in poor neighborhoods, i.e., the potential next generation in the working-age adult poverty population.

But, in fact, living in a poor neighborhood disadvantages the current generation too —  because of few nearby decent-paying jobs, for example, public transportation to get to them, fewer working neighbors to serve as networks and such high levels of stress as to interfere with job training and searches.

Now comes genuine commodification, i.e., the need to buy what’s needed for a decent-paying job. When TANF began, a diploma from a public high school sufficed for a job that paid more than a poverty-level wage.

As we all know, you now need postsecondary education and/or training for in-demand skills. Both are often costly. So it’s sort of them that has gets and those that don’t doesn’t.

Add to these the difficulties low-income parents have in giving their children opportunities that will pay off in the long run. These include high-quality early education delivered in daycare centers.

And following that, ready access to good public schools, since that generally requires living in a well-off neighborhood, where rents are high or nonexistent because it’s a homeowner community.

The authors intersperse these facts with brief remarks on what policies could do and what some already are. But what’s clear enough is that our anti-poverty plans need some significant adjustments.


Rehashed Attacks on SSDI, New Rebuttals, Proposed Reforms

May 1, 2017

The Washington Post recently published a long article on Social Security Disability Insurance benefits in small rural communities. It set off a well-deserved backlash. But it made me wonder whether anyone had ideas for improving the program. Hence this post.

Aspersions on SSDI and Beneficiaries

The Post article focused on a former roofer who was suffering chronic pain because he’d fallen to the ground. He couldn’t find a different sort of job. So he was weighing whether to apply for SSDI.

The thrust of the article was that SSDI, is sort of ongoing unemployment insurance benefit — and how both the number of beneficiaries and costs have soared. “Filled with tropes, gimmicks and dogwhistles frequently promoted by right-wing opponents of SSDI,” said Media Matters.

I was going to take a pass — partly because I dealt with these allegations when an NPR reporter patched together factoids and personal opinions to argue that SSDI has become “a de facto welfare program” and partly because expert advocates swiftly pounced, as they had before.

The Post followed up with an editorial calling for reforms, while suggesting, as did the NPR reporter, that many SSDI recipients aren’t all that disabled. Further fodder for Congressional Republicans eager to “reform” so-called entitlements.

And not only they. Trump’s Office of Management and Budget Director made the same point. SSDI has “effectively become a long-term, permanent unemployment program.” He looks forward to talking with his boss about “ways to fix it.”

Then we got a rebuttal of the Post’s rural county analysis from two policy experts at the Center for American Progress. The Post published a correction, based on a different data set. Still wrong said the rebuttal team — essentially cherry-picking, since it finds only one out of more than 5,100 that backs up its still-broad claims.

Surely SSDI deserves a strong defense, Bad enough you can’t earn money for at least a year at any job whatever because your disability is so severe or because you’ll probably be dead.

Bad too in many cases because disabilities can be painful, hard to adjust to and costly, even with Medicare — a benefit paired with SSDI, if you live long enough.

And bad because you’re tarred with accusations of fraud The program isn’t fraud-free, but two former Social Security Administration officials put the rate at less than 1%.

Proposed Improvements

So should we insist that policymakers leave the program untouched? Experts — and not only those leaning left — say emphatically not.

The Cato Institute, for example, tackles a problem that other more moderate experts have also addressed. Under current law, SSDI recipients may try to reenter the workforce for a year, if they earn no more than $1,170 a month or a bit more than that if they’re blind.

A dollar more and they’re over a cliff because that supposedly shows they’re capable of substantial gainful activity — a hard-and-fast disqualifier for SSDI.

Needless to say, I hope, this hardly encourages recipients who can’t earn a whole lot more from trying to earn what they can, even if they might earn more over time.

So Cato proposes a benefits offset for wages earned, but also a subsidy from another funding source that would that would increase up to a higher level than the SGA. And those who opt for this dual support wouldn’t lose their SSDI eligibility.

This isn’t the only problem, however. The overly-complex, often prolonged process of gaining approval for SSDI benefits necessarily means that applicants mustn’t work for quite a long time. If they’re rejected, as many are they have a hard time finding a job they can perform.

One proposal that two former chairs of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security chose for a book would have a new screening system that would identify applicants who could continue to work if they received swift supports, e.g., vocational rehabilitation, assistive technologies like a computer speaks what’s on the monitor.

Employers would, of course, have to retain them — or if they were too disabled for a work support solution hire those who weren’t. Another of the published papers would give them an incentive for the former by requiring them to cover the first two years of disability claims — some skin in the game, so to speak..

The screening system proposal would instead effectively insulate them from liabilities for noncompliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act if they kept their disabled workers who’d received supports on the payroll. (Feel a little queasy about this.)

Still another proposal looks instead to transitional, i.e., short-term, subsidized jobs in the private sector– rather like the highly successful use many states made of the Recovery Act’s TANF Emergency Contingency Fund.

This, however, would be for potentially work-capable beneficiaries, new applicants and those whose applications SSA rejected.

Federal funds would subsidize their pay up to $10 an hour. That would boost their income by roughly $428 more than the average benefit.

But most beneficiaries surveyed had jobs requiring few specialized skills, and only a third had any education beyond high school. So one could assume their benefits were below the average.

Employers would get not only workers they wouldn’t have pay. The program would cover their responsibilities for payroll taxes, unemployment insurance taxes and premiums for workers compensation insurance. In short, good hiring incentives here.

Employers could, at any time, hire their transitional workers, but they couldn’t keep them on as transitional for more than six months.

During that time, transitional workers would have a job counselor, presumably to resolve problems. When the time limit came, the counselor would help those who’d done well to find a regular job. If none panned out within a month, the seeker could become transitional again.

In this respect, it’s somewhat like the trial period the current SSDI program allows in that in eliminates a disincentive to trying to reenter the workforce, but it’s obviously much more supportive than merely allowing a beneficiary to find a job that pays more than the SGA.

The last piece of this proposal tackles problems with the Earned Income Tax Credit that disadvantage all workers who don’t have children living with them and those with children whose spouse also works.

These have been issues on progressive policy agendas for a long time — and the former for the hardly progressive House Speaker Ryan.

Prognosis

The return-to-work proposals could and should raise concerns among progressives, especially that triaging. But one can imagine building in safeguards against denying SSDI to applicants unable to work.

The proposals would appeal to conservative policymakers, I think. They like safety net programs that involve work and/or preparation for work — in other words, programs that aim to get beneficiaries out of them.

Conversely, they don’t like programs that provide ongoing cash assistance without some sort of work component when beneficiaries aren’t demonstrably incapable of doing anything for pay.

Doubtful that we’ll see any of these proposals taken up by this Congress. But the SSDI Trust Fund will probably run out of money toward the end of 2023.

Rather than again redirecting payroll taxes money from the retirement trust account, thus accelerating its shortfall, we might see one or more of them or some combination on the legislative agenda. And one devoutly hopes someone else in the White House.


No Proof Trump-Targeted Programs Work?

April 6, 2017

Congress set in motion a sensible response to the incessant claims from the right that anti-poverty programs don’t work.

It passed a bill that creates an expert commission to review federal program data and make recommendations for using it to support program evaluations and improvements based on results.

Now we’ve got justifications for Trump’s budget that fly in its face — specifically that certain programs that serve low-income people’s needs should cease to exist right now because we don’t have enough proof they work.

The Community Development Block Grant would end because it’s “not well targeted to the poorest populations and has not demonstrated results.”

Communities use CDBG funds to meet various needs. That’s what a flexible block grant is supposed let them do. Some unknown number support Meals on Wheels. They collectively supplied prepared meals for more than 2.4 million homebound seniors last year.

The OMB Director says that Meals on Wheels “sounds great,” but we can’t keep giving states money for “programs that don’t work.”

We do, in fact, have some research showing Meals on Wheels does—probably behind his ken. In any event, he brushes off the lost benefits by donning the mantle of fiscal responsibility.

The Trump budget would also zero-fund grants to local Community Learning Centers, which channel them to afterschool programs, especially in high-poverty, low-performing schools.

The director says more or less the same about them. “There’s no demonstrable evidence that they’re .. helping kids do better in school.” Again, we’ve got some evidence they do, though limited. Not, one infers, demonstrable enough to make the administration even pause.

The budget would also eliminate the Low Income Home Heating and Energy Assistance Program because it’s among the “lower-impact” programs and “unable to demonstrate strong performance outcomes.”

Now, we truly don’t want to fund programs that have no positive or only minimal effects. On the other hand, measuring a program’s effects by the so-called gold standard, i.e., a multi-year comparison of impacts on those who received benefits or services and a control group that didn’t, is a costly business — and still not conclusive.

One need only look at the gold-standard Head Start impact studies. The second, which tracked recent participants through the third grade found that gains didn’t last.

But when research teams at the Brookings Institution and UCLA looked instead at the long term, they found that the children fared better in significant ways

The real issue here, however, is what evidentiary standard a program has to meet for it to be considered funding-worthy.

Consider LIHEAP. It’s done less than it might for quite awhile because it’s been under-funded — and increasingly so. Its appropriations were small, even before the Budget Control Act capped spending on non-defense programs — just $5.1 billion in 2010. Less ever since.

At the same time, home heating costs have increased, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. So states, which get shares of the funding as block grant, have had to cut back on the number of low-income households whose home energy costs they subsidize and by how much.

The program nevertheless keeps the heat on for nearly 6.1 million poor households. Seventy percent are especially vulnerable, the National Energy Assistance Directors Association states, protesting what Trump intends.

Now, common sense tells us that that having heat in the winter averts new or aggravated illnesses due directly to the cold — even death, since roughly a quarter of LIHEAP households include a member who uses electrically-powered.medical equipment.

Bills paid for electricity also prevent injuries, since rooms can be lighted at night and food poisoning by keeping refrigerators running and stoves operating. (This last would be true of natural gas as well, of course.)

Whatever the energy source, the assistance LIHEAP provides can prevent homelessness and other hardships, e.g., food insecurity, because low-income households otherwise have to spend far more on home energy than the less cash-strapped—16%, as compared to 4%, according to findings when energy costs were lower.

Do we really need to find out what happened to another similar group of people who had their utilities cut off and couldn’t scrape up the money to get them turned back on?

It would be bad enough if the Trump administration were holding programs to an unreasonable standard — or merely ignorant of research-based evidence that they work.

But when it says it won’t fund programs without proof of that, it’s putting a self-serving, deceptive gloss on decisions made to cut spending on safety net and other non-defense programs.

How do we know? Well, Trump is bound and determined to fund private school vouchers. Do we have evidence of their outcomes? We do, to some extent, each focused exclusively on one state’s voucher program, plus the District of Columbia’s.

The earliest two found positive effects, e.g. higher graduation rates and, in the District, higher reading, but not math scores.

On the other hand, three of the four most recent, including one financed by a pro-voucher institute found that children in voucher programs scored lower in both reading and math than children in public schools. The fourth found no effect, as measured by graduates going on to college.

A foolish consistency isn’t always the hobgoblin of little minds. In this case, it’s minds of greater capacity engaging in inconsistency to justify their policy preferences — hoping futilely that no one will challenge their alternative facts.


Much Progress Toward Reducing Poverty, But Much More to Do

March 23, 2017

So many news reports, analyses, blog posts, etc. on how the House Republicans’ repeal-replace bill and/or Trump’s budget would harm poor people. I thought I should clear my mind and purge anger, however briefly.

So I reread a fleshed-out speech that Jason Furman, Obama’s Chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisors—gave a few days before Trump’s inauguration.

It seems even more timely now, as we learn more about what the new administration and Republican House leaders have in mind. But it’s relevant also to what state — and in some cases, local — policymakers have done and can do.

So a brief summary of the hefty, research-based framework and then the agenda Furman lays out.

What Accounts for Poverty

“Poverty is shaped by market forces and government policies and programs,” Furman says. Market forces are basically those that determine what people earn by working, investments and profits from sales. Furman focuses solely on the first.

Government policies and programs include other pre-tax income, e.g., Social Security benefits, post-tax cash transfers like refunds from the Earned Income Tax Credit and cash-equivalent transfers like SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

Significant Progress Toward Reducing Poverty

Forget all that rhetoric about throwing trillions at the problem with no impact on poverty rates. The poverty rate, as measured by a back-looking version of the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure was 41% lower in 2015 than in 1967, as the War on Poverty was setting in.

But the news here is that government anti-poverty programs account for the drop. Market-income poverty has remained essentially flat — and its deep poverty rate risen by nearly 3%.

Why No Progress From Market-Income Poverty

Furman identifies three market-income factors that could lift poor workers and their families over the poverty line — productivity growth, i.e., output per worker per hour, where the income generated flows and labor force participation, i.e., the percent of the population over 16 years old that’s working or actively looking for work.

Productivity growth slowed about 20 years ago, though it recently ticked up. The big difference from the prime period the CEA identified is that most of the income flows to the top — very large salaries for top management, corporate decisions to boost stock prices by buying back shares and maximizing dividends.

So productivity growth and average worker pay, plus benefits no longer closely track. The gap has, in fact, steadily widened, as the Economic Policy Institute’s graphs show.

Meanwhile, the labor force participation rate has trended down, recently reaching a 38-year low. Many reasons for this—retirement of baby boomers, for example, more young people going to college, more people (mainly women deciding to stay home with the kids because child care costs more than they’d earn.

But that still leaves a contingent of discouraged workers — those who looked, but gave up, those who decided it was futile to try — in many cases because they’ve found or have reasons to believe that they don’t have the knowledge and/or skills employers demand.

What the participation rate means, of course, is less household income — and less pressure on employers to offer higher wages.

Where to Go From Here

Furman’s agenda for further progress follows logically from his analysis. It has four major items.

Do no harm. Evidence shows that the safety net works — not only in the short term during recessions, but in the long term because the benefits it delivers have lasting effects on children’s prospects for moving up the income scale. So we should avoid policies that make it less effective, including block grants. (Told you this was timely.)

Focus on raising market incomes. This will involve policies to boost economic growth, but also changes to shift more of the gains to lower-income workers. Measures would raising minimum wages, as 22 states, the District of Columbia and more than 60 local communities have.

Furman also names expanded unions — presumably mostly in the private sector. This would also require repealing laws in half the states that allow workers to benefit from union bargaining without joining — and laws in three that have weakened public-sector union bargaining.

For individual workers and prospective workers, we need better programs to connect workers to jobs. Also more and better formal education.

On the more side, Furman cites research showing that low-income children fared better as adults when they participated in early childhood education programs. On the better, everything from that to college and beyond.

Rounding out this part, Furman looks to unspecified steps to reduce monopsony, i.e., cases where only one employer or a few control the labor market, thus enabling them to keep wages low..

Take further steps to improve the safety net. We need, for example, to increase funding for programs that egregiously fail to serve people who are or ought to eligible, e.g., for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, housing assistance.

We need to expand the EITC so that it’s a work incentive for childless adults, whom we still tax into poverty or deeper poverty.

And we should redesign the unemployment insurance program so that recessions automatically trigger more weeks of benefits or bigger benefits, rather than depending on what Congress decides at any given moment to do..

Think harder about people who fall through the cracks. Furman has no specific suggestions here, just notes the Edin-Shaefer findings on families living on $2 or less per day.

Worth noting, however, that the team attributes the sharp rise in such extreme poverty to the virtual end of cash assistance for non-working families when TANF replaced welfare as we knew it. Furman too zeroes in on TANF in a lengthy boxed insert.

So as we martial our defenses of safety net programs and protections for under-paid (and unpaid) workers, it’s still worth holding onto a vision and speaking out for a better day and better ways. And worth not losing sight of the policy-driven progress we’ve already made.


What to Ask About New Safety Net Work Requirements

March 6, 2017

As I said last week, we’ve reasons to expect that more work requirements imposed on “work-able” adults who have — or need to have — safety net benefits. So it’s worth considering how we might assess what state governors and legislatures propose.

We have two major models for work requirements — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and SNAP (the food stamp program), as applicable to able-bodied adults without dependents.

Both permit not only work for pay, but participation in a program that prepares for such work. Participation counts only if for a minimum numbers of hours. generally averaged over some period of time.

Assuming, as I think one can, that proposed new work requirements will include a broader range of permissible activities than work for pay, we thus have some experience to assess them. Some questions then.

Will the state ensure that all unemployed or under-employed adults who are otherwise eligible for the safety net program can get a slot in a job training program for the requisite number of hours?

Very few states do for the ABAWDs, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports. The federal government provides states with some funds expressly for SNAP-related employment and training. But most states use most of those funds to move adults with children into the workforce.

Experience with TANF also makes this a relevant question. I haven’t seen a comprehensive account of slot shortages. This much we know. States spend, on average, 7% of their federal funds, plus those they must spend to get them on work activities.

The District of Columbia’s TANF program reflected a similar priority in the not-too-distant past. In 2014, parents waited up to 11 months for access to a job training program. And the clock kept ticking, so to speak, toward the date when they and their children could never have TANF benefits again.

Will the state provide the other resources many of the adults will need to work or participate in a job training program for the required number of hours?

The adults, by definition, have little, if any income. And such as they have, must often pay for rent, food (even with SNAP benefits) and other basic needs, e.g., supplies and handfuls of coins for laundry, telecommunications of some sort.

Will the state provide transportation and/or a transportation subsidy, e.g., an auto fuel allowance for those with a car, a bus pass and/or subway fare card for those on a public transit route?

And what about the adults with children not old enough to be in school during all the hours they’re supposed to work or prepare for same? They’ll need free or nearly-free child care. And it’s unrealistic, as well as potentially unsafe for the kids to expect parents to count on friends or relatives.

The affordable childcare record generally indicates a gap to fill. Last year, for example, 20 states had waiting lists for childcare assistance or had closed them, the National Women’s Law Center reports.

Virtually all states require parents to chip in some money of their own, as a co-pay. It’s generally small as a percent of income for those below the poverty line.

But in at least four states, it’s at least 10% — $250 a month for a single parent with just one child. (Some exceptions here that wouldn’t apply to every parent subject to a new work requirement.)

How will state identify adults who aren’t work-able?

SNAP rules exclude from the ABAWD requirement adults who are medically certified as unemployable due to a mental or physical condition, pregnant or otherwise already exempt, presumably because they’ve qualified for SSDI (Social Security Disability Income) or SSI (Supplemental Security Income).

The bar here is very high. Someone, for example, may be employable, i.e., able to work and get a job, but not for an average of 20 hours a week or for months at a time. One or both are common enough for people with certain chronic conditions.

So what standard will the state set? Will it ensure that all adults potentially unable to work can have the requisite medical review — and, if necessary, the legal help to surmount to notorious barriers to gaining federal disability benefits?

Consider too that adults who’ve no disabilities may have compelling, related reasons not to work — a child with severe disabilities who needs constant care, for example, or a frail, aged parent.

Most states and the District exempt TANF parents with such responsibilities from work requirements. Will states do the same if they opt for new work requirements?

Will participating adults be able to find jobs — and keep them?

No job training program lasts indefinitely. And it’s very doubtful that a state would allow a work-able adult to move from one to the next and then the next until s/he could find a job.

Yet some safety net participants have what are commonly called barriers to work, e.g. mental or physical disabilities that don’t rise to the SSI/SSDI level, functional illiteracy. Just plain long-term unemployment is a barrier too, as are common consequences—credit checks, for example.

On the other hand, many adults who rely, at least for awhile on safety net benefits had jobs no longer available in the area they live in — or elsewhere.

The jobless former factory workers and coal miners that Trump appealed to would seem to need retraining tailored to employers’ needs in their area — and others projected nationally.

Will the state do the necessary market and personal assessments? How will it provide these and other services to poor people in small rural communities, if it has them?

Where will the money come from?

Well, the state shouldn’t look to the federal government for more funds — not at least for the foreseeable.

Recall that the flexibility states would gain to impose work requirements on Medicaid beneficiaries would also shift costs to them, increasingly over time — currently estimated at $560 billion over the next 10 years.

Experience with not only TANF, but SNAP E&T offers further cautions. Congress, as you probably know, has never increased funding for the former. The latest Farm Bill restored the latter to the same maximum it had in 2004 — in real dollars, about 44% less.

And the budget Trump is trumpeting would reduce total federal spending for non-defense discretionary programs by $54 billion — not a happy prospect for the grants states receive for job training, placement help and the like.

These aren’t the only questions I’d want to ask. But they must suffice for now, lest this post swell entirely out of compass. Would any of you like to add others?


Those Who Do Not Work Will Not Eat… or Have Other Basic Needs Met

March 2, 2017

Conservatives have long liked the notion of conditioning safety net benefits on work or a near equivalent, e.g., participation in a job training or education program, unpaid community service.

Work requirements are in the forefront now, due mainly. not only to what Congressional Republicans are reportedly mulling over for their Medicaid “modernization.”

Work requirements aren’t new, of course. They’re a key feature of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

And the law that created it also denied ongoing SNAP (food stamp) benefits to able-bodied adults without dependents who don’t work or participate in a job training program at least half-time.

So we’ve some experience with work requirements. And, as the old saying goes, “What you see depends on where you stand.” But not altogether. That experience can give us filters to assess proposals to build work requirements into more federally-funded programs.

I’m going to confine this post to the political landscape and how influential conservatives justify work requirements. Will follow up with a post on those filters.

Republican Leanings Toward More Work Requirements

The House Republicans evolving Medicaid overhaul doesn’t impose work requirements. Instead, it grants states vastly greater latitude to set eligibility standards.

We can foresee some results, including work requirements because a handful of Republican governors have jumped ahead, asking the federal administrative agency for permission to impose them.

The Obama administration’s Medicaid administrators rejected most requests. But it’s a brand new day in the executive branch. And Trump’s lead decision-maker helped develop the Kentucky governor’s still-pending request.

In short, the waiver petitions show the way the wind is blowing in some Red States — and what more states may do when granted the flexibility the House bill drafters have in mind.

Many poor and near-poor people may have to meet work requirements in other programs intended to keep them healthy and safe — or suffer the consequences.

House Speaker Paul Ryan’s blueprint for his party’s poverty agenda includes, as a principle, “Expect work-capable adults to work or prepare for work in exchange for welfare benefits.” Those benefits serve a wide range of low-income people’s basic needs, e.g., health care, food, housing, help with home heating bills.

The Heritage Foundation, which now seems to have a virtual seat at the White House policymaking table, has called for an across-the-board work requirement for able-bodied SNAP recipients.

The new Secretary for Housing and Urban Development has hinted at potential work requirements for people who live in subsidized housing. For example, he told the Senate committee vetting him that he wanted HUD’s programs to “be a Band Aid and a springboard to a better life.”

The Chairman of the House committee that oversees HUD has been more forthcoming. “We will reform our housing programs for the poor to reflect the value of work,” he said at a forum on the issues.

How Supporters Justify Work Requirements … and Grains of Salt

We find several sorts of justifications for work requirements. Ryan and numerous other conservatives cite what happened in the first few years after parents (mostly single mothers) had to comply with work requirements to receive time-limited cash assistance for their families.

A large number did, in fact, move from welfare to work, though not only because of the new requirements. Most importantly perhaps, the labor market was very tight then. Employers sorely needed more low-skill workers.

Looking past those years, we see that single mothers have fared badly in the labor market, as have TANF families generally. But lead Republicans still cite TANF as the model safety net program.

We’re all familiar by now, I suppose, with allusions to safety net benefits as a hammock. Seems that poor people prefer lolling comfortably, at taxpayers expense, to even trying to get a job.

They must be dumped out of their hammocks, if not immediately than with imminent prospects that they will be — as indeed, TANF parents (and their children) generally are.

On a less pejorative note, we hear that work is the best way out of poverty. That’s true enough enough, if one can find a job paying more than a poverty-level wage. (The same folks who invoke this remedy generally don’t support minimum wage increases.)

“Work confers dignity …responsibility,” says Arkansas’ governor, who’d sought permission to impose a work requirement for Medicaid. One might wonder what the stay-at-home spouses of like-minded proponents think.

Snark aside, it defies common knowledge to argue that only people who work for pay feel as sense of personal responsibility.

Consider, for example, a poor mother with children, scrambling to put food on the table, find some place for the family to spend the night — even donating her plasma until she’s in danger of anemia in order to get some cash.

I’m not sure what dignity means in this context — perhaps the respect of others, though the link to responsibility suggests it’s supposed to mean respect for one’s self. Whether working bolsters self-respect would seem to depend on a number of factors, including how attuned one is to our society’s work ethic.

On the flip side, many of us know, I think, how demoralizing it is to look for a job and net nothing, month after month. Demoralizing also to settle for a job that calls for far less than what one’s qualified to do — and pays far less as well.

That’s a likely result for many work-able adults in safety net programs if they’re subject to work requirements that are either time-limited or conditioned on participating in programs geared to push them into (or back into) the workforce as quickly as possible, like the “work first” approach once common in TANF and still favored in some quarters. .

Top-flight progressive advocates adamantly oppose any further work requirements. They cite, for example, the percent of safety net beneficiaries who already work or live with some who does.–or on the other hand, the very high percent who can’t be expected to.

All this said, new work requirements seem a not unlikely result of the Republican majorities in Congress now having a like-minded executive branch — and the very high portion of states where Republicans set the agenda.

So, as promised, I’ll suggest some questions we might ask if — or should I say as — more work requirements surface.