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 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.