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.


On Snow, Charitable Giving and Need

February 4, 2016

Can’t altogether put the big snowstorm behind me. For one thing, the city left the hard-packed drift behind my car. But that’s not what I want to write about. On the contrary. It’s why I wasn’t snowed in and anxious as all get-out.

Even before the snow stopped, I could open my front door, where it tends to pile up, and walk safely to my gate. One of my neighbors shoveled my steps and front walk twice during the storm and again the following day. Cleared the sidewalk in front too.

His wife had made a first pass at the walk as night fell — and snow swirled. She’d called in the morning to find out if I needed anything and again the next day. I mentioned my worries about a power outage.

Well, I should come over to their house, since they’d have a fire going. And power loss or no, would I like to join them for dinner?

Now, these are people I don’t know well — just neighbors whom I chat with when we chance to see one another. But they went out of their way to care for my most critical need — and to let me know they cared.

So did total strangers.

When the snow finally stopped and the sun came out, I decided I should start unburying my car. I knew I didn’t have to strength to do it all at once. (It was barely distinguishable from the drafts fore and aft.) So I planned to do it in stages.

Three young men in a truck pulled over and asked whether I’d like help. I told them I couldn’t pay them unless they’d accept a check. (I’d realized only after the storm started that my provisioning had omitted a trip to the ATM.)

No check wanted. They just pulled out their shovels and dug for awhile — enough so I could get into the car and out of my parking space should I dare to drive. (I didn’t.)

But I returned to the car task the following day. Up walked another young man. Could he help? He didn’t want to be paid, he assured me.

And he would have gone on digging even longer than he did if I hadn’t said we should call it quits — this so I could retreat to the house and get blood flowing in my fingers.

Reflecting on my snow days experience, I’m struck — and moved — by how charitable these people were. That’s the word that pops to mind when I retell the story to myself.

We’re accustomed to seeing it in the phrase “charitable giving” or its kindred “charitable gift.” These , of course, refer to donations of money or things of value to organizations that, in this country, have registered with the Internal Revenue Service as 501(3)(c)s.

But the word came into our language, through French, from the Latin caritas. Long before it migrated, it had come to mean selfless love for one’s fellow beings — the feeling that inspires caring acts, including giving alms to the poor.

But the love, not the donations was what qualified charity as a Christian virtue — in some Biblical texts and later teachings the greatest.

I’m not trying to convert my snow story into a sermon. I do, however, think there’s a lesson about giving and need.

We see people in need every day — and know about many more through our media sources, advertisements and the solicitations we receive, especially toward the end of each tax year.

Some of us may give money directly to people who ask for it as we pass them by on the street. I doubt many of us give to everyone who asks, though I’ve only my own conduct and what I see as evidence.

We who’ve got the wherewithal tend to respond to the needs of those we only read or hear about by charitable giving in the usual sense. But we, the American public, split when it comes to public policies. If we didn’t, we’d have a quite different set — and different elected officials making them.

Consider, for example, SNAP (the food stamp program). It’s supposed to address needs for food that poor and near-poor people can’t otherwise afford.

But as you read this, more than a million people are near to losing their SNAP benefits because they’re able-bodied, have no dependents living with them and can’t meet the work requirements Congress imposed when it ended welfare as we knew it. “Can’t” is the proper word here, given the barriers they face.

Conservatives like work requirements. And we don’t see much pushback from progressives — at least, not as a matter of principle. Trouble is poor people need cash or near-cash assistance to survive.

Now I’m not ready to argue that we should give free food, housing and the like to work-able people who purportedly laze about in comfortable hammocks.

But who believes that any able-bodied (and minded) adult without dependents would choose not to work at least half-time or participate in a job training program because s/he could get some free food — less than $2.00 per meal, on average?

We’ve got a modern-day version of the old distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor. Those who don’t work or prepare for work in some specified way can’t have their basic needs met — unless they’re too young, too old or too severely disabled.

Few basic needs met for the too young, however, unless their state exempts them from the five-year, lifetime limit on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits. Most states don’t.

Returning — thought I never would, didn’t you? — to me and the snow days. No one who helped me had decided I was a worthy sort. No one tried to ascertain whether I’d put my back into shoveling out.

They simply felt a charitable calling. Surely we could have more of that in our public policies without jeopardizing the work ethic of our poor fellow creatures.


TANF Work First Doesn’t Work, New Study Confirms

December 3, 2015

The House Subcommittee on Human Resources is still holding hearings to provide a basis for the overdue overhaul of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. No issue has proved as controversial as the work activity requirements.

Progressive experts want them modified so that parents can readily engage in activities that will improve their employment prospects, e.g., by allowing states to count toward their required participation rates longer-term job-related education, high school enrollment and GED prep for adults and services to reduce personal barriers to work.

Others the subcommittee has heard from object to any such expansion. Robert Doar and colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute, for example, say they fear it will “shift the focus of TANF away from a work-first model.” Clearly a bad thing, since TANF “has been a success,” Doar claims elsewhere.

His view — and not his only — is that the program should aim to get parents into the workforce swiftly. No matter that the jobs they can get often pay little. They’ll develop more skills, plus a work history and so move up to higher positions.

A recently reported study of parents who left Maryland’s TANF program casts grave doubts on this scenario. It does so by tracking a sample of nearly 4,770 leavers for five years — longer than most prior studies.

Even first-year outcomes strongly suggest that a majority weren’t work ready, though that’s the intent of the work activity requirements — or if ready, not able to find steady work.

Only slightly more than one in three worked all four quarters — whether part time or full time the report doesn’t say. It does, however, tell us that only 18.5% earned $20,000 or more — enough, in other words, to boost a family of three over the very low poverty line.

More than one in four didn’t work at all. And of those who did, the highest percent — roughly one in three — earned no more than $5,000.

Steady employment — even by the researchers’ liberal standard — was relatively rare. By the fifth year, only about one in five had consistently worked either three or four quarters.

The percent that never worked barely shrunk. And in the fifth year, it outstripped those who worked all four quarters, making it the most common outcome then.

A similarly dismal earnings picture. True, the number earning more than $20,000 was 7% higher by the fifth year. But nearly 48% earned $5,000 or less, not counting those who had no earnings whatever.

Over the whole five year period, more leavers than not “remained mired in jobs” in which they never earned more than the equivalent of a half-time job at the minimum wage. Far, far less than the self-sufficiency TANF programs aim for.

And indeed, 58% of the leavers returned to Maryland’s program — this presumably because they’d left before they’d participated for the 60-month lifetime limit, which Maryland, like a majority of states, imposes. (Most of the rest cut families off sooner.)

On a local note, the District of Columbia’s TANF program adhered to a work-first approach until late 2011 — and took some considerable time after that to fully convert to more individually-tailored activity plans.

The District hadn’t even used such opportunities as federal rules allowed to permit a year of “education directly related to employment” at a community college or voc-tech school. Nor had it used these opportunities to meet needs for basic literacy or English as a Second Language education.

What this means is that the first round of families who’ll lose what remains of their benefits spent years in a program that prepared few, if any of the parents for jobs that pay enough — and for long enough — to even lift them out of official poverty.

We didn’t need the Maryland study to tell us this. Earlier followups have indicated something similar for leavers after the first few years to TANF — those the program’s enthusiasts always cite.

A fairly recent audit of the District’s own 60-month-plus parents found, among other things, that only 38% who’d received employment services got jobs that could have provided steady, full-time work.

Of all those who’d gotten jobs of any sort since early 2012, fewer than half had jobs of any sort in October 2014. And as my review of the findings noted, the fall-off starts before the second month.

These results skew toward the positive because the auditors looked only at the 40% or so of at-risk parents whom the Department of Human Services had assessed as work-ready.

Ready perhaps, but apparently unlikely to work steadily for wages that are anything like what they’d need to support themselves and their children.

And unlike the Maryland leavers, they won’t have a chance to recover the protections against dire poverty that TANF provides — unless the District concludes that establishing a rigid time limit was a short-sighted mistake.