Work requirements do nothing to address the barriers that keep low-income people from securing and maintaining decent jobs.
January 19, 2018
Will taking crucial food, health, or housing assistance away from struggling men and women increase the likelihood that they will secure and maintain decent employment?
The answer, of course, is no.
Yet this is the misguided logic underlying the Trump Administration’s escalating push to expand and strengthen “work requirements” associated with programs that help low-income families and individuals meet their basic needs. Last week, federal health officials issued guidance encouraging state governments to attach these harsh and ineffective policies to Medicaid eligibility, just before giving the State of Kentucky the first formal approval to do so (Governor Bevin has since threatened to roll back Medicaid expansion if his administration is legally challenged). Trump Administration officials have signaled that they could soon pursue similar administrative attacks on other key anti-poverty programs, while some congressional Republicans have also expressed interest in doing so through legislation.
Far from improving employment outcomes, though, work requirements will simply punish millions of struggling men and women for forces beyond their control, make it much more difficult for them to find and maintain work, and ultimately increase poverty and suffering.
At their core, work requirements are predicated on the false idea that low-income adults won’t work unless forced to do so — a notion that, at least in large part, is animated by racialized stereotypes of laziness.
While pervasive, these assumptions fly in the face of the fact that most low-income people who can work already do.
Those obstacles include very low educational attainment, chronic homelessness, a criminal record, an undiagnosed mental illness, and domestic and sexual violence. Moreover, many people, particularly women, have caregiving responsibilities for children, older adults, and people with disabilities that make sustaining employment difficult. And then there are structural economic forces — high regional unemployment rates, stagnant wages, and lack of access to reliable, affordable transportation — that serve as barriers to work.
Given these obstacles, it’s no surprise that research shows that work requirements do little to connect struggling individuals to meaningful employment and help them achieve upward mobility. Instead, work requirements create endless bureaucratic hoops that succeed in reducing the caseload by kicking people off of programs yet do not actually help anyone go to work.
Ironically, by taking crucial assistance away from those who need it the most, such policies actually make finding and maintaining work much more difficult. People of color, who are more likely to face structural barriers to employment and interpersonal discrimination from caseworkers, are hit particularly hard.
The truth is that most major anti-poverty programs like Medicaid actually serve as work supports. Just ask recipients themselves: After Ohio and Michigan expanded Medicaid, most recipients who were surveyed said that access to healthcare coverage made it easier to seek or maintain employment.
By causing recipients to lose access to crucial healthcare, Medicaid work requirements violate the fundamental purpose of the program as laid out under the Medicaid Act. Meanwhile, work requirements associated with other basic assistance programs often result in erroneous sanctions, and thus illegally deny recipients access to benefits for which they are eligible.
If lawmakers were serious about bolstering employment outcomes for low-income adults, there are a whole host of things they could do. They could expand and increase the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to make low-wage work pay more. They could expand access to quality, affordable childcare so parents can make it to work or attend class. They could double-down on job training programs so low-income workers can develop the in-demand skills they need to compete and thrive. They could raise the minimum wage, bolster worker protections, and advance other fair and equitable workplace policies. The list goes on.
Yet the current push for work requirements comes right as the Trump Administration and congressional Republicans are advancing an assault on those very programs and policies. And, just like the imposition of work requirements, attacks on these policies and programs will only undermine the quality of life and employment prospects of low-income men and women.
Given the many barriers to gainful employment faced by low-income adults, and our public policies’ failure to address them, it’s unrealistic and unjust to condition basic needs on work.
Advocates around the country must fight at both the state- and federal-level to combat these harmful policies, as well as the wrongheaded rationale and assumptions that undergird them. The financial and physical well-being of millions is at stake.
Our laws and policies must support people by ensuring fair work at a living wage and by providing the income supports families need to be successful.
Systemic inequities and the legacy of structural racism make it harder for low-income people and people of color to achieve financial stability.