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Work Requirements Have Always Been About Punishment

The pandemic has offered a brief respite from policies that force people to work to “deserve” basic support like food stamps. We can’t go back.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The Labor Department’s jobs report last Friday was about as bleak as predicted: The official unemployment rate is now 14.7 percent—the highest in the nation’s history since the Great Depression—with the actual rate almost certainly higher. Since March, over 30 million people have lost jobs, with many now struggling to make ends meet.

The solution to these problems proffered by the Trump administration and various Republican legislators has been simply to send people back to work, even though the rate of infection in many states hasn’t yet fallen and will almost certainly spike again as more return to public life, either by choice or coercion. “I think there’s a considerable risk of not reopening—you’re talking about what would be permanent economic damage to the American public,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said on Sunday. But the push to get people back to work against the advice of public health experts is not only dangerous—it’s also deeply unpopular with the public, which makes sense considering how quickly the impact of a new wave of infections will touch people’s lives.

This push to get back to work, in many ways, is also an extension of a long-standing, ineffective, and punitive American approach to the social safety net in general: Namely that government assistance, in all but a few cases, should be predicated on work.

Today, several key social safety net programs—from food stamps to temporary cash assistance for families living in poverty—come with some form of work requirement, meaning that able-bodied adults using the program must meet a specific threshold of employment to remain eligible for benefits. While such requirements are at the discretion of individual states and are often modified or waived during times of extreme national hardship—such as the Great Recession and, now, the pandemic—Republican policymakers at the federal and state levels have rarely hesitated to tighten them whenever opportunity arises. As former legal aid lawyer Rebecca Vallas wrote in The Washington Post last month, the continuous push to increase work requirements and other program restrictions has had the effect of weakening safety net programs, ultimately making them less effective during times of crisis. “While work requirements don’t address employment barriers or make jobs appear out of thin air, they are a highly effective tool for shrinking program enrollment,” she wrote.

Last December, for instance, Trump aggressively pursued more stringent work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, a move that stood to kick 700,000 recipients off the program. As late as mid-March, even as the scope of the pandemic and its disastrous effects on the economy were apparent, the administration pressed to implement the new rule, which was only narrowly averted at the last minute by a federal court order and a congressional decision to suspend work requirements for the duration of the pandemic. That was an echo of 2018, when the Trump administration encouraged states to adopt new work requirements for Medicaid, a push that resulted in more than 18,000 Arkansas residents losing Medicaid coverage that year. Though a federal court ruling eventually blocked the change, Bloomberg Law recently noted some growing interest in the reinstatement of work requirements for Medicaid in the wake of the pandemic. “Work requirements will be needed at that time as a way of refocusing the programs on the truly needy,” one free-market think tank spokesperson told Bloomberg.

But if there’s one thing the coronavirus has made clear, it’s that unemployment is all too often the result of forces outside of workers’ direct control. Even barring cataclysmic events like a pandemic, weak labor markets (and weaker labor laws), criminal records or low credit scores, racial discrimination, health problems or mental illness, obligations to care for family members, and a host of other factors can all prevent people from obtaining work. The mass layoffs wrought by the pandemic lockdowns are just one extreme example of the unpredictability of both the labor market and individual circumstances. As Rebecca Vallas put it, “A critical lesson from this era should be the immense cruelty of tying something as essential as health insurance or food to employment in the first place.”

Even in theoretically prosperous times, work requirements have repeatedly failed to generate substantial increases in employment or reduce poverty, even as they purge needy people from program rolls. In a 2018 analysis of the long-term effects of work requirements on recipients of cash assistance that were first implemented during Bill Clinton’s disastrous welfare reform bill, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that those requirements led to negligible long-term gains in employment while also prolonging mass suffering. As the researchers found, “Most cash assistance recipients subject to work requirements stayed poor, and some became poorer.” And as poverty scholars Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Schaefer have written, welfare reform, and the transition to work-based assistance in particular, led to a sharp increase in the number of people in the United States living in deep poverty or trying to survive on less than $2 per day.

The welfare reform era—or the period in the mid-1990s when Clinton promised to “end welfare as we have come to know it” and when then Senator Joe Biden, among others, voted for the bill that eventually eviscerated cash assistance—also demonstrates that while work requirements are currently pushed most fervently by Republicans, they also have a not terribly distant history of bipartisan support. In the months ahead, as legislators continue to squabble over stimulus packages and how best to rehabilitate the economy, more progressive members of Congress might have a rare chance to use rising public support for government aid to fight for newer, better safety net measures. At least one proposal so far calls for monthly payments of $2,000 to most adults in the U.S. for the duration of the crisis—a temporary reversal, in a certain sense, of decades of cash transfers predicated on punitive work rules. As the bill’s co-sponsor Ro Khanna put it, you have to put people’s lives before their labor. It just doesn’t work the other way around. “Americans need sustained cash infusions for the duration of this crisis in order to come out on the other side alive, healthy, and ready to get back to work.”