Paperwork Keeps People Poor

Paperwork Keeps People Poor

It would be a huge mistake for Democrats to embrace harsh work requirements once again.


Months of negotiations over the Democrats’ agenda in Congress keep boiling down to one thing: What will Joe Manchin agree to? Since his vote is necessary to pass the party’s Build Back Better package, which includes funding on climate change, health care, housing, and caregiving, the conservative West Virginia senator has been calling many of the shots.

Manchin has steadfastly insisted that social programs separate the deserving from those who supposedly aren’t. The expanded child tax credit payments, which currently go to all low-income parents whether or not they have a job, have been a particular target of his ire. “Don’t you think, if we’re going to help the children, that the people should make some effort?” he argued recently. Apparently raising children is not enough effort to deserve financial support.

Manchin also wanted higher barriers for families trying to get child care subsidies and to force people to prove their previous earnings before they can take paid leave.

His campaign seemed to have partially succeeded when President Joe Biden pared down his once ambitious plan in October. Suddenly, if parents want to receive child care subsidies, they must prove they are working, looking for a job, training for one, enrolled in school, undergoing a health treatment, or on leave.

There’s also a work requirement in the House Democrats’ most recent paid family leave proposal. While governments typically ask for proof of employment to take paid leave, this one goes further, requiring people to file periodic reports telling the government how many hours each week they spent on caregiving.

The problem with these provisions is not that people aren’t doing what the government thinks they should. Most parents who need child care are probably working, studying, or trying to find a job. People on leave are caring for someone, either themselves or their loved ones. The problem is forcing them to demonstrate it, potentially over and over again. It’s the paperwork and bureaucracy, not complying with the rules, that keeps people off the programs they need to survive.

This is the lesson we’ve learned from the country’s largest experiment with work requirements, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. President Bill Clinton imposed such a rule on cash welfare recipients with the support of many in his party, including then-Senator Biden.

But TANF proved that forcing these rules on aid programs doesn’t compel poor people to work; it just keeps them poor. In some early TANF programs, the work requirements did modestly increase how much recipients worked, but they mostly held unstable jobs. Five years later those employment gains had disappeared, and recipients who were subject to a work requirement actually worked less. Few were lifted out of poverty, and some even fell deeper into destitution.

Work requirements have been just as disastrous elsewhere. They’ve lowered enrollment in food stamps without helping people find more work. After the Trump administration allowed states to impose work requirements on Medicaid, more than 18,000 people in Arkansas lost their benefits, with no uptick in the labor force.

Despite this evidence, Democrats until very recently still insisted on making the poor prove they deserve benefits. And yet that instinct seemed to fade with the onset of the pandemic. Democrats voted through three rounds of stimulus checks for nearly all Americans. Then they extended the existing child tax credit to over 90 percent of families, even those with little to no income from work.

The payments started to go out only in July, but they’ve already had a huge impact. Hardship and hunger among parents dropped the moment the checks hit their bank accounts, while deprivation actually increased for childless households. Three million fewer children were living in poverty in July. The payments aren’t reaching all eligible families; if they were, child poverty would have dropped from 15.8 percent to the single digits. Still, they offer a glimpse of the power of simply giving people resources.

It would be a huge mistake for Democrats to reverse course on this progress and return to embracing harsh rules. As a senator, Biden once wrote that the poor need to be made to “work their way out of poverty.” It’s time to prove that he and his party have left that approach well in the past.

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