Earlier this week, President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing federal agencies to both enforce existing work requirements for participants in programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and to consider adding federal work requirements for participants in programs like Medicaid. The executive order argues that work requirements are necessary to encourage more recipients to become self-sufficient, concluding that "many of the programs designed to help families have instead delayed economic independence, perpetuated poverty, and weakened family bonds."
The executive order, which asks federal agencies to submit proposed regulatory changes in 90 days, has reignited a long-standing debate, with many conservatives expressing their support. Robert Doar, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and influential voice among right-wing policy wonks, told CNN: "People can't rise out of poverty if they are only receiving SNAP and Medicaid. These programs were meant to supplement earnings, not replace them."
But progressive advocates argue that not only are the work requirements unnecessary (most recipients of federal aid who are able to work do in fact work), they are actually harmful to low-income Americans.
In a new research brief, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank, argues that placing federal work requirements on Medicaid recipients, for example, will harm both those who do and those who do not work:
For people with low-wage jobs, such as food services, construction, or retail, work hours often fluctuate from month to month, leaving them short of the required minimum in some months even as they exceed it in others. Low-wage jobs are also unstable, with frequent job losses that leave people unable to find work in some months. Also, some enrollees who meet work requirements may still lose coverage because they get tripped up by red tape and paperwork.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities brief comes on the heels of a similar report it published last month, which pointed out that, while 52 percent of healthy adult SNAP recipients worked in a typical month, a much higher percentage (74 percent) were either currently working, had worked in the year before, or would work in the year after. In other words, employment is often highly unstable for many SNAP recipients.
SNAP and Medicaid were not designed to lift people out of poverty. Medicaid benefits, after all, can't be used to pay rent or buy school supplies for kids. SNAP benefit levels, meanwhile, are abysmally small—the average monthly benefit is $126 per person. It's also more than a little unrealistic to assume that simply slapping more work requirements on program recipients will address the many barriers to steady employment facing low-income Americans: a lack of paid leave, the soaring cost of childcare, and a minimum wage that's too low, to name just a few.
In his executive order, Trump makes little mention of these factors. He does, however, reference in glowing terms the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, which imposed, for the first time, work requirements on welfare recipients. But, Trump's executive order concludes, the 1996 legislation was still too narrow in its reach: "While bipartisan welfare reform enacted in 1996 was a step toward eliminating the economic stagnation and social harm that can result from long-term Government dependence," it reads, "the welfare system still traps many recipients, especially children, in poverty and is in need of further reform and modernization in order to increase self-sufficiency, well-being, and economic mobility."
Similarly, at a press conference about the new executive order, Andrew Bremberg, the director of the president's domestic policy council, referenced the "success" of the 1996 reforms. The administration would do well to remember the law's failures along with its successes. While the 1996 welfare reforms did produce, for a little while, some notable improvements in labor force participation rates and earnings for some participants, they also left countless of the country's most vulnerable families and children in dire straits, particularly once the devastation of the Great Recession hit.