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.


Hope for Bipartisan Reform of the EITC for “Childless” Workers?

February 25, 2016

Far be it from me to discount bipartisanship. It would be nice to see some at the federal level — on issues that would help poor and near-poor people, among others.

But I’m not as hopeful as some kindred spirits that proposals in the President’s budget could get Republican leaders in Congress on board — notably House Speaker Paul Ryan.

He’s floated a plan for “expanding opportunity in America” — specifically, for Americans stuck on the bottom rung of the income ladder. It proposes, among other things, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit for childless workers.

The hopefuls see a chance for bipartisanship here. And perhaps there is. Conservatives, after all, want low-income people to work. And the EITC is said to reward work because it provides a tax credit for some variable amount of income earned by working.

It doesn’t, however, truly reward work for childless wage earners. Nor for those who have children, but not living with them for most of the year. Nor for young workers, childless or otherwise.

Together, they’re the only group our federal system taxes into poverty or — and more often — deeper poverty, as a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis shows.

How the EITC Works

The EITC reduces what many, but not all workers owe in income taxes. If they owe less than zero when they claim the credit, they get a refund.

For all eligible workers, the credit kicks in with the first dollar earned. It then rises by a set percent of earnings until a reaches a certain dollar value, cruises there for awhile and then declines, by a set percent, until it reaches zero.

Both the percents and the maximum dollar value depend on whether the filer has children in the home and, if so, how many. The tax structure also favors married couples over singles, but only in the phase-out if they’re childless.

The maximum credit for both is a mere $506. And singles get no credit at all when their countable income is less than what a full-time, year round job at the federal minimum wage pays.

What the President (Again) Proposes

The President’s proposal would expand the EITC in several ways. First, it would change the minimum and maximum ages for claiming it.

At this point, “childless” workers don’t become eligible until they’re 25 years old. And they lose eligibility when they’re over 64, even though many remain in the workforce longer, if they can — especially now that they can no longer get full Social Security retirement benefits until they’re older.

The President would make the eligible age range 21 to 67, the age when workers born in 1960 or thereafter will reach Social Security’s full retirement age — unless forces for so-called entitlement reform succeed in boosting it again.

He would also double the phase-in rate, i.e., the percent of earned income that translates into a larger credit. The maximum credit a worker could claim would almost double. And a worker could get it for longer because the phase-out rate would match the phase-in.

About 13.2 million low-income workers would benefit — both those newly eligible and those eligible now.

What Could Stymie Bipartisan Reform

The structure Ryan proposes for “childless” workers mirrors the President’s. And he too would drop the minimum eligibility age to 21. He’d leave the maximum age the same, but that seems readily negotiable.

What won’t be is the pay-for, i.e., the offsets that will prevent the losses in tax revenues from increasing the deficit.

The new proposed budget doesn’t say specifically what other proposal(s) would offset the losses. We do, however, see various tax reforms that would more than offset them, as well as help pay for direct spending initiatives.

In fact, closing just one tax loophole high-earning individuals can — and apparently do — use to legally game the system would raise more than four times the cost of the expansion. The President’s economists cited this loophole-closer as an EITC expansion pay-for last year.

Ryan’s opportunity plan specifies pay-fors too — all spending cuts. He expressly rejects raising taxes — even, one infers, by closing unintended loopholes.

He’d eliminate what he calls — perhaps rightly, in some cases — instances of “corporate welfare.” But he’d pay for the EITC expansion mainly by ending “programs that don’t work” — and reducing “fraud” in the refundable part of the Child Tax Credit.

Programs he’d eliminate include the Social Services Block Grant and two small programs that aim to get more fresh fruits and vegetables into the diets of young children.

Now, the Social Services Block Grant is challenging to defend with the “hard evidence” Ryan wants — ironically, for reasons that should appeal to him and his Republican colleagues. First off, it’s a block grant — and like most others, under-funded, in part because it’s had no increase for many years.

But the main reason it’s hard to defend — and should appeal — is that it offers states lots of flexibility. So they can invest a bit of money here, a bit there, supplementing their own funds and tapping funds from other federal sources.

How then to prove the effectiveness of SSBG in, for example, providing child care so that parents can work, reducing senior hunger, protecting children and adults with disabilities from abuse, etc.?

Does this mean the program doesn’t work? Of course, not. Nor would what Ryan proposes for the Child Tax Credit prevent costly fraud.

It’s instead what’s sadly familiar by now — requiring parents who claim it to have Social Security numbers. This would deny refunds to low-income undocumented workers — and indirectly, their children, most of whom are U.S. citizens, as if that should matter to someone who professes concern for poverty in America.

Why Bipartisan Reform Only Doubtful, Not Hopeless

It’s not only the specific offsets Ryan proposes, but his whole approach that casts doubt on a bipartisan bill — and subsequent vote — to make work pay for so-called childless adults.

But who knows? A majority of House Republicans and enough in the Senate did agree to a budget deal that converted the time-limited EITC and Child Tax Credit improvements in the Recovery Act to permanent law.

Give them enough of what they want, swallow enough of what you don’t but can live with and we could have a fairer EITC. A lower poverty rate too. Hopes, needless to say, contingent on the results of the upcoming elections.


Congressman Ryan Unveils His Safety Net Reform Plan

July 28, 2014

Congressman Paul Ryan took up the cause of anti-poverty policy reform not long after his bid to become Vice President failed. He visited local programs, accompanied (and probably selected) by the ultra-conservative founder and president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.

He issued a big — and hardly objective — review of federal programs attributed to the War on Poverty. He held five hearings purportedly designed to help lay the groundwork for a new and better approach.

And last Thursday, he finally announced some proposals at an event hosted by the right-leaning — but not radically right-wing — American Enterprise Institute.

The big headliner should come as no surprise to anyone who’s even casually familiar with his persistent celebrations of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and/or his annual budget plans.

He wants to create a block grant. It’s not “a garden variety block grant,” he says, because states would have to meet certain requirements. But if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck ….

And if our experience with eminently-flexible block grants tells us anything, it portends trouble for low-income people.

The proposed Opportunity Grant would initially be a pilot. States could submit plans to consolidate 11 diverse safety net programs, e.g., SNAP (the food stamp program), several forms of housing assistance, TANF, the block grants for child care and community development.

States would get the same total amount of funding they’re entitled to now. If another recession or a natural disaster put more people at risk of hunger, they could, if they chose, put more money into SNAP, but only by reducing other types of assistance.

Ryan’s formal proposal says that some counter-cyclical component might be added to boost assistance during recessions. It might not be more funding, however, but instead a requirement that states set aside some of the money they receive in a sort of rainy day fund.

But if food, housing, home energy and other costs rise, as they surely will, the participating states will get squeezed, just as they’ve been squeezed by the flat-funded TANF block grant — and, like as not, with similar results.

States would have to spend the funds on “people in need.” Aid would have to go first, but not exclusively to people living below the poverty line.

States would not, however, have to sustain their own spending levels on safety net programs. As Bob Greenstein, President of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, warns, they would have “tantalizing opportunities” to use their block grant funds instead — as in fact, they have with their federal TANF funds.

States would have to see to it that everyone who can work does — or engages in preparation for work. This will require significant expenditures because states currently don’t have job training programs big enough to enroll everyone whose benefits would hinge on their participation.

They would also have to commit funds to expanding their networks of service providers. And they would have to give folks their choice of providers.

Whatever their choice, they’d get a single caseworker to help them develop an “opportunity plan,” oversee compliance and dole out sanctions. Bonuses too perhaps. The caseworker would apparently also dole out benefits, based on some sort of needs assessment.

This could mean a smaller (or no) SNAP benefit in exchange for, say, a low-cost car loan. Or it could mean a whole battery of benefits and services for some people in need and nothing — or much less — for others. “Fundamental math,” as CBPP’s top-level TANF expert says.

And where are the states going to get all those additional caseworkers? Here again we see less money available for programs that help meet people’s basic needs, she says elsewhere. Less perhaps for job training and other services as well.

Lastly, states would have to engage an independent entity to evaluate success according to outcomes identified in their plans. Success here is moving “people out of poverty and into independence.”

But a key measure for providers would be how many people “they help move off welfare.” This, as TANF has taught us, leads to a “work first” approach, i.e., one that requires participants to take any job they can get as soon as they can get it. Legal Momentum reports the dismal results.

In short, the OG pilot is for all the world like TANF on steroids, though with some accommodation for elderly and disabled people.

And to what end? The integrated, innovative, localized approaches Ryan says will be gained by getting “the federal bureaucracy” out of the way are already possible, as the state-level initiative that CLASP and partners are supporting shows. Likewise the Catholic Charities programs he praises.

The pilot is only one of the proposals Ryan tees up to “make federal aid both more effective and more accountable.” Some have — and could gain further — bipartisan support. Some, one hopes, not.

For example, Ryan proposes other block grants — one for Head Start, which he still insists in an utter failure, and two for the various federal funding streams that flow to public elementary and secondary education programs.

I felt as if I were suddenly transported back to the early days of the Reagan administration.

Well, Ryan claims that he’s just trying to start a conversation, as he also did when he launched his hearings. My own sense is that we should begin by talking about how these various proposals for “expanding opportunity in America,” as he styles them, comport with his budget plans.

The latest, for example, would cut SNAP spending by $137 billion over the next 10 years. And, as the Coalition on Human Needs notes, other programs that could be rolled into the “super-block grant” are in the part of the budget that Ryan’s plan would cut by about twice as much as sequestration requires.

“My work on poverty is a separate thing,” he’s said. Tell that to the families that are running out of food because their SNAP benefits were cut — or the parents of the more than 5.6 million preschoolers who are eligible for federally-subsidized child care, but can’t get it.