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Work requirements force the recipients of certain public assistance programs to complete a minimum number of hours of “work related activities” every week.
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What are work requirements?
Work requirements force recipients of certain public assistance programs to complete a minimum number of hours (usually 20) of “work-related activities” every week. Otherwise, their benefits will be terminated or significantly reduced.
Only certain activities count as work-related activities, but typically employment and community service are on that list. Time spent on longer-term work preparedness, like education or job skills training, usually do not count towards basic requirements.
Work requirements rose to prominence during 1996 welfare reform, when the guarantee of income assistance for poor families with children was replaced with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a block grant that implemented harsh restrictions and time limits. As a result, TANF (commonly known as welfare) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) are the most prominent examples of public assistance programs with work requirements. However, proposals to expand SNAP work requirements and add work requirements to Medicaid and various rental assistance programs have been getting more traction.
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Isn’t it good to require people to work?
Most people on public benefits programs already work, or are looking for work. The trouble is, sometimes people can’t find jobs or are unable to work, and work requirements kick them off their benefits when they need them most without doing much to help them join the workforce.
Medicaid is a great example of this. Most people on Medicaid already work, and most of the people who aren’t working report that they’re primary caregivers to family members, have temporary health problems themselves, or are disabled. Others face labor market disadvantages—like low educational attainment or a criminal record—that make it difficult to find a job. The suggestion that people need work requirements to motivate them when they actually need health care, home care, education, or legal help is really misguided.
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So what’s an example of work requirements?
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps—has had work requirements since 1996. That’s when certain adults not raising minor children became subjected to a harsh three-month time limit on food assistance unless they are working or participating in qualifying work activities for at least 20 hours per week. It’s important to note that the law doesn’t require states to provide these jobs or jobs training slots (and the majority of them do not). States are permitted to waive the time limits in areas of high unemployment, and most did so in the years that followed the Great Recession.
Recently there’s been a renewed effort among Republican policymakers to reinstate—and ramp up—SNAP’s work requirements. In 2016, they were in effect in 40 states, 22 of which implemented them for the first time since the Great Recession—even in areas of high unemployment. More than 500,000 adults were expected to lose benefits as a result.
What’s more, the Trump administration has proposed restricting these time-limit waivers to areas with unemployment rates greater than 10 percent—that is, peak unemployment during the Great Recession. Some of the areas that would lose waivers include parts of Appalachia, the Navajo Nation in Arizona, and southern Alaska. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that, under this proposal, fully 1 million unemployed adults without dependents would lose access to SNAP in a given month.
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What other programs have been targeted for work requirements?
In addition to efforts that would harshen SNAP’s time limits, there are various proposals to attach work requirements to Medicaid. Earlier this year, senior officials from the Trump Administration, including former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price and Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Seema Verma invited states to apply for waivers that would allow them to experiment with work requirements at the state-level. Separate legislation has been introduced in the Senate to require work requirements nationally, and the House of Representative’s proposed 2018 budget seeks work requirements for Medicaid recipients as well. The proposals vary, but the basic concept is the same—to require able-bodied adult Medicaid recipients (typically ages 19 to 64) to engage in work-related activities for a set number of hours a week as a condition of receipt, with few exceptions.
Other programs targeted for work requirements include various rental assistance programs—namely Section 8 Tenant-Based Rental Assistance, Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance, and the Public Housing program. In 2016, as part of the agenda that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s outlined to overhaul public assistance programs, he proposed that rental assistance programs align with TANF benefits—and that residents thus be subject to the same work requirements. In President Trump’s proposed budget for 2018, he indicated that his administration would look to add work requirements to rental assistance programs in the coming years.
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Do work requirements increase employment rates?
The results are mixed, but the best-studied example of work requirements suggests that any gains in employment rates are small and short-lived. That’s largely because they push people into low-paying and, ultimately, unsustainable jobs the labor market at the time that work requirements were implemented. But within five years, those gains had largely disappeared, and the TANF recipients subjected to work requirements did not see improved long-term employment outcomes. Instead, what happened was that people who were unable to work—due to, for example, health problems or labor market disadvantages—were unceremoniously cut off of income assistance, and many were pushed deeper into poverty.