The Racist, Insulting Resurgence of Work Requirements

The Racist, Insulting Resurgence of Work Requirements

The Racist, Insulting Resurgence of Work Requirements

Work requirements expose the nasty underbelly of the vaunted American work ethic. We would rather the poor starve than risk that they might spend less time on the job.


The nation has averted an entirely manufactured financial crisis. Last week, President Biden signed a deal hashed out with House Republicans to raise the debt ceiling—an arbitrary limit Congress places on how much debt the Treasury can take on to pay for the bills Congress itself already incurred—which means a US default, which could have wrecked the economy, is off the table until 2025.

But because Democrats refused to raise the debt ceiling on their own before losing the House in last year’s midterm elections, the deal included concessions to Republicans to garner their votes, since Democrats could no longer muster enough votes on their own. One of the major concessions is broadening work requirements imposed on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit programs—that is, cash welfare and food stamps.

We’ve already had decades of experience with work requirements, and there is a fundamental fact we know for sure: They don’t work.

Even when they result in employment increases, the effects fade over time. Instead, people are simply left with fewer resources to survive. People who were subjected to work requirements in TANF thanks to the 1996 welfare reform overhaul were no more likely to be employed five years later than those who escaped them. In Maryland, more than a third of the people who were kicked off the program had no job five years later. Those who do get jobs tend to end up in unstable work that typically doesn’t last. The same patterns are true for SNAP: That program’s work requirements have had no effect on employment or earnings, but they have reduced how many people can get help affording food. They also appear to increase depression and anxiety.

We can see the disastrous results of work requirements on the ground in specific states. Just take a look at what happened in Arkansas. The Trump administration decided to do something novel: allow states to impose work requirements in Medicaid, a program that had never been subject to them before. In June 2018. Arkansas became the first state to put them into force. When I spoke to residents after they went into effect, many hadn’t heard of the new rules until they got a letter threatening to take away their health coverage. They were already working or had good reason, such as a disability, not to; they just got tangled up in red tape and lost their benefits. Eighteen thousand people lost their coverage, even though “work requirements did not increase employment,” according to a 2020 paper.

You could also look at what Mississippi has done with TANF. The state was among the first to pilot a work requirement even before it became required in 1996. In 2006, Mississippi made its requirement even stricter than what the federal government mandates, requiring anyone who wants to enroll to first prove that they have a job or are searching for a job before they can receive assistance like childcare—something most parents need in order to apply to jobs and interview. Today, a mere 4 percent of poor state residents receive the benefit, thanks to this and other barriers.

This immiseration, ironically, comes at a high cost. It cost Arkansas over $26 million to administer its ultimately doomed Medicaid work requirements. Iowa’s recently passed work requirements for SNAP are projected to cost $17 million over three years. It takes serious staff time and resources to set up reporting portals and have state employees figure out who does and does not meet the new requirements.

Efficiency isn’t the point, of course. Politicians who tout work requirements pretend that they’re the secret sauce to getting people to work. Lauding the debt ceiling deal, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said that work requirements will make someone “sitting on the couch collecting welfare…get a job.” If that were true, they would be easy to comply with and come with supports that help recipients find jobs. After imposing the Medicaid work requirement, Arkansas officials were adamant that they wouldn’t spend any additional money on helping people find work. Instead, they are typically implemented in the most complicated way possible. Arkansas residents had to log the hours they spent working, in school, or volunteering each month, for example, on a website that required a PIN and was multiple pages long. It also shut down every night at 9. In January of 2019, a mere 322 people logged on to the website to report.

McCarthy’s comments hint at the truth: Work requirements are part of the racist drive to keep the poor from getting benefits that might help them survive. They were born of President Reagan’s hammering away at the “welfare queen” trope, which paved the way for Americans to see “welfare” as something that mostly serves Black people (though white people are the biggest group of public benefit recipients) who are lazy and therefore deserve cuts to the program they rely on. The racism lives on. States with larger Black populations have stricter rules and more meager benefits. When Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Virginia asked the Trump administration for waivers on implementing Medicaid work requirements, they exempted majority white counties.

In the earlier part of the Biden administration, it seemed that Democrats had finally learned these lessons. First, President Biden took a series of steps to ensure that states would no longer be able to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients, effectively killing the effort.

Then, he pushed for and signed into law something even more remarkable: a government benefit for the poor that had no work-related strings attached. The American Rescue Plan included a bigger Child Tax Credit that also offered it, for the first time, to all poor families, even those who earn little to no income. That meant, effectively, that if a family couldn’t work for pay they could still access assistance to survive.

The new and improved Child Tax Credit had a profound impact on poverty. By December 2021, it had kept 3.7 million children out of poverty, reducing the monthly child poverty rate by 30 percent. That kind of decrease is, as poverty expert and Columbia University economist Irwin Garfinkel told me, “jaw-dropping.” Child poverty fell to the lowest level ever recorded in 2021. Financial hardship and hunger also fell.

All of this was accomplished without tanking the US labor market. Many different research papers from leading economists have found that the expanded Child Tax Credit payments had virtually no impact on work. In other words, families had more resources, struggled less, ate more, and didn’t decide to quit and stay at home. Instead, there is evidence that the payments were significant in helping people work in families where at least one parent was unemployed. That may be because, as the researchers who found this effect write, the payments “help[ed] financially strained families cover expenses that may prevent them from entering the labor force.”

The politics have now swung back to the old ways, it seems. The expanded CTC payment expired and Congress failed to renew it despite calls from policy experts to keep it in place. Work requirements are once again in vogue. Perhaps it’s not hard to figure out why. Poor people, who are bearing the brunt of the debt ceiling concessions through both work requirements and budget cuts to the programs that serve them, “tend not to be the most enfranchised voters,” Tobin Marcus, a strategist at Evercore ISI who was previously an adviser to Biden, told Politico. Big business fended off the possibility of nixing the 2017 tax cuts that helped increase the federal debt in the first place, and rich Americans will benefit from a cut in IRS funding that will allow more of them to get away with tax evasion. Their money speaks loudly in the halls of Congress. The poor, though, don’t have the “ability to make their voices heard,” Marcus said.

The fear that Child Tax Credit payments would entice parents to leave the workforce is based on some ugly and false assumptions. Essentially, it casts the poor—and, specifically, poor Black people—as idle at their core, looking for any excuse to live off the government dole. That conception, while deeply ingrained in this country, has proven false over and over again. Most people who receive government benefits and don’t work full time have good reasons—they’re disabled, elderly, in school, or caring for someone. Many poor people try very hard to work, but they can only find temporary or unstable work. That doesn’t mean they aren’t struggling as hard as anyone else to feed their families and care for themselves. The so-called “great resignation” was a misnomer. Swaths of Americans didn’t simply drop out of the labor force; instead, a tight labor market allowed low-wage workers to trade up for better jobs for once—even as Americans have kept working at extraordinarily high rates.

This concern also, of course, doesn’t extend to the wealthy, plenty of whom live off passive income they lift nary a finger to earn themselves. The more income people have, the less likely they are to make it from wages for what most of us think of as actual work. In 2012, people who earned more than $10 million made half of their money from capital gains—returns on investments—alone.

Work requirements expose the nasty underbelly of the vaunted American work ethic. We think the poor don’t work because they can’t be bothered to, and are willing to deprive them of the basics that are required to stay alive—food, housing, health care—to force them to, in McCarthy’s words, get off the couch. We would rather they and their children starve than risk that they might spend less time on the job.

It twists the reality, which is that having more resources makes it easier to work. Sick people struggle to hold onto jobs. So do hungry people. Cash from something like TANF or a CTC payment can help them cover a few hours of childcare while they interview for a job, new clothes for the first day of work, gas or bus fare so they can get to work every day.

The White House has been trying to argue that the actual impact of the new work requirements will be minimal. States will have less flexibility in meeting the federal government’s work requirement rules in TANF, and adults age 54 and younger without children will have to meet SNAP’s work requirements that used to only apply to those 49 years and under, but new groups—homeless people and veterans—will be newly exempt, at least on paper. There’s plenty of reason to doubt the administration’s argument, because any extra hurdle means people risk being unable to enroll even when they easily qualify. But the administration also misses the larger, more important point. Putting a work requirement in a public benefit program tells the poor that their lives are worthy only if they can prove they are working hard enough. It gives credence to a cruel view of the American people, particularly those who struggle the most.

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