Bootstrapism and the fear of “dependency” has gone very far to limit and restrict American social welfare programs for a very long time. Even with the pandemic, business owners and Republicans fear that giving workers the ability to not work by giving them relatively small amounts of money will basically destroy their America. The Biden administration has made a good move to strip the work requirements from Medicaid recipients. We need to go much farther and get rid of this throughout our already ridiculously limited safety net.
The American social safety net is built on a paradox. You must be poor, but not too poor, to receive benefits. Nearly all of the need-based social programs — those available only to the neediest Americans, determined by income level — have some sort of work requirement built in. To participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), often referred to as food stamps, able-bodied adults must meet a work requirement.
Two other major components of the social safety net have work requirements: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). TANF, much like SNAP and Medicaid, is a federal program but is administered by the states meaning a great deal of variability in eligibility requirements. But since reform in the 1990s, nearly all states have adopted a welfare-to-work model, aimed less at supporting low-income families and more at pushing them into the labor market through work requirements. Similarly, the much–heralded Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the single largest pure cash transfer program in the US, is inherently work-based. The refundable tax credit is available only to people with income. The EITC’s famous “trapezoid” gradually phases in as workers’ income increases, and then gradually phases out until a worker’s income is too high to qualify. For instance, a single parent of two children begins receiving the credit with any income, receives the maximum credit at an income of around $15,000, and loses the EITC at a little under $50,000. The Trump Administration sought to introduce and strengthen work requirements across the federal social programs, even considering requiring public housing authorities to adopt work requirements.
Many view work requirements as a success because they incentivize work. They certainly have pushed many people out of social programs, though evidence on their effects increasing work is mixed; results from a new study in Stockton, California show that a universal benefits do not discourage work.
Against Work Requirements
Work requirements are as much of a stick as a carrot. They encourage workforce participation through penalizing nonwork, seemingly out of a desire to target aid only towards the “deserving poor.” Work requirements, though, have always distorted labor markets and low-income Americans’ life choices for the worse, in ways made even more apparent by Covid-19 and the ensuing economic crisis.
Work requirements are flawed in principle and in execution. Whether or not work requirements effectively incentivize work, their conception and goals are flawed for three reasons. First, work requirements punish the most economically vulnerable individuals and families. The non-working poor are already comparatively worse off than the working poor. Families without working adults already suffer from their lack of income; work requirements compound the hurt by cutting off their access to needed social programs as well.
Whole thing is very much worth your time. It should be part and parcel of our demands for a revived social safety net. People don’t really need to be “encouraged” to work through draconian requirements that make their lives worse. The sooner this nation stops punishing people for being poor, the sooner we can move on to greater steps toward equality.