The logic behind work requirements for public benefit programs is simple on its face. In an economy with a 3.6 percent unemployment rate and in which there is, technically, a job opening for every unemployed person, anyone who is physically capable of getting and keeping a job could reasonably be expected to do so. Perhaps they simply need a nudge—the threat of losing their health care, cash assistance, or food stamps—to help them do it.
But that’s a facade. And President Trump just blew it right off with his latest budget. He admitted the truth: The real intent of work requirements is to cut people off from benefits in order to dramatically shrink social programs.
He has been zealously pursuing work requirements since he came into office. In 2018 his Council of Economic Advisers released a long report arguing for work requirements in virtually all social safety net programs. Although Congress has more or less refused to go along, his administration has done what it can to make that vision a reality. Trump signed an executive order instructing federal agencies to review assistance programs to see whether they could unilaterally impose work requirements. The administration gave states the ability to seek waivers and institute them in Medicaid, and it put forward a proposal to let housing authorities mandate them for public housing residents and recipients of rental assistance. In December it finalized a rule that will make existing work requirements for food stamps harsher.
Trump’s proposed 2021 budget is no different. It calls for instituting or beefing up work requirements “in federally funded public assistance programs,” including Medicaid, food stamps, rental assistance, and cash welfare. Work requirements will “enhance service coordination for program participants, improve the financial well-being of those receiving assistance, and ensure federally funded public assistance programs are reserved for the most vulnerable populations,” his budget claims.
They are also a major component of his plan to address the supposedly dangerous government deficit. “Unsustainable Federal deficits and debt are a serious threat to America’s prosperity,” his budget states, pointing out that the deficit was $985 billion in 2019, the largest since the recession ended, and is forecast to hit $1 trillion this year. “It is imperative,” Trump’s proposal reads, to “reign [sic] in spending” to deal with this purported crisis he helped create by reducing the tax burden on corporations and the wealthy. The budget therefore seeks to trim spending by $4.4 trillion over a decade. That includes $292 billion in cuts to safety net programs, secured in part by all the new or enhanced work requirements. (You won’t, of course, find a mention of one big driver of that deficit. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the massive tax cut package Trump signed into law will add $272 billion to the deficit this year and inflate it by $1.85 trillion over a decade.)
If work requirements operated the way they’re intended, they would be an ineffective way to slash spending. In such a tight job market, recipients should, according to proponents, be able to land a job and thus earn a paycheck while still receiving benefits. But that would result in no net savings. The administration is clearly counting on people losing access to health care, rental assistance, and food and cash supplements en masse as a result of those requirements.
Finally, Trump is saying the silent part out loud. Work requirements have never been about helping people get work. They are about denying access by erecting a thicket of paperwork between the needy and the assistance they require to get by.
When the Trump administration allowed states to impose work requirements in their Medicaid programs, Arkansas kicked more than 18,000 people off Medicaid in seven months. A follow-up study found that those who lost insurance didn’t go on to get jobs that offered health insurance; a large portion simply became uninsured. New Hampshire, which also implemented a Medicaid work requirement, was on the verge of kicking 17,000 people off the rolls in just two months and thus decided to halt its implementation.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the country’s cash welfare program, has had a strict work requirement since the program was implemented in the welfare “reform” of the 1990s. Since then, more than 2 million families have lost all of their benefits because of these rules. Meanwhile, the impact on employment—the ostensible reason for instituting these requirements in the first place—is typically negligible in the longer term. Research done by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in a handful of states found that TANF’s work requirement did not make people any more likely to be working within five years. In some places, those who weren’t subject to such a rule were actually more likely to work. The same is true of food stamps. A 2018 study found that the program’s work requirements have led to lower enrollment without increasing how much recipients work.
Despite this, Trump administration officials have lined up in favor of work requirements. “Millions of people who could work are continuing to receive [food stamps],” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue said in defense of work requirements. “We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand but not allowing it to become an infinitely giving hand.” The requirements “are not some subversive attempt to just kick people off of Medicaid,” claimed Seema Verma, the administration official who spearheaded states’ ability to impose them for Medicaid.
But that’s the effect they have on all public benefits. And the president has now admitted that he is banking on them to do just that.