Work requirements to qualify for government aid: How well does it work?

IMAGE: CNS photo/Jim Young, Reuters

By Mark Pattison

(CNS) — Ever since the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity
Reconciliation Act of 1996 — longhand for “welfare reform” — became law, the
federal government has imposed work requirements for adults receiving Temporary
Assistance for Needy Families money.

the recipient of such money has to work at a job, be actively seeking a job or
take part in a job training program — and be able to document it — to receive
the cash assistance. Those who don’t are at risk of having their funds cut off
for months. For repeat offenders, it could be years.

January, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that encouraged
federal agencies to find ways to expand work requirements as a condition of
receiving benefits.

That encouragement
has spread to states, as some have tied work requirements to expansion of
federal Medicaid benefits to those not just below the federal poverty line, but
barely scraping above it.

also has picked up on the hint, as the House version of the farm bill which
passed in June imposed more restrictive work requirements for those receiving
federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, once known as food
stamps, with some critics warning that 2 million Americans — many of them
children — would be in danger of being cut off from aid.

imposing work requirements work?

Schneider, a research professor at the Center for Children
and Families in Georgetown University’s Health Policy Institute, suggested that when it comes to Medicaid coverage, the question
is not germane.

“To get
to the chase here, it’s not about encouraging people to work. It’s not about
providing work supports like transportation or child care. That’s not what Medicaid
does,” Schneider told Catholic News Service.

date, 32 states have expanded their Medicaid coverage to all adults under 138
percent of the federal poverty level. Virginia, which approved Medicaid
expansion and imposed work requirements in May, will be the 33rd. Of those,
Kentucky, Indiana, Arkansas and Wyoming have gotten approval from the federal
Department of Health and Human Services to impose work requirements, according to
Schneider; Alabama and Mississippi have their requests pending at HHS.

said he was part of an amicus brief in a federal suit testing whether HHS’
approval of new work requirements for Kentucky, which had expanded Medicaid
protection years ago, is legal. But the case was rejected June 29 by a federal judge. Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican, has threatened to rescind the expansion if it is not tied to work requirements.

“Requiring people to work is not what Medicaid
as a health insurance program does. It’s not the purpose. It was not designed
to do it. It doesn’t provide and funds for work support,” he said. And trying
to do so, Schneider added, is like trying to put “mashed potatoes into a Popsicle mold.”

Pavetti, vice president of family income support policy at the Center on Budget and
Policy Priorities, has been tracking government assistance to families since
before the 1996 welfare overhaul.

states do better at supporting families, she said. “No program is perfect,” but
California’s is “pretty comprehensive,” Pavetti added. The state has “a pretty
robust cash employment program. More people who need it (get it). They address
the diversity of needs … for people who really need it,” including community
college education, she said. Minnesota doesn’t have the community college
component, but much else of what California offers.

At the
other end of the spectrum, “in Georgia, you basically have to be able to show
up for 40 hours a week before you ever get on” the benefit rolls, Pavetti said, with only 5
percent of those eligible receiving TANF benefits. “Indiana, a few years, ago
made a policy change and so there it’s just plummeted.”

the imposition of work requirements, according to Pavetti, 68 percent of those
eligible nationwide received benefits. “Now it’s 23 (percent). … In some
states, it’s four. In some states, it’s just disappeared.”

Why? “It’s
a mix of things,” Pavetti replied. “The requirements are onerous and people
find it difficult to meet. The programs people are required to participate them
are not great.”

At the
start of the 1996 welfare overhaul, “if you look what happened, there was an
increase in employment, but five years out, they all go away,” she said. That
span coincided with an expansion and contraction of the economy, but the
subsequent economic boom didn’t trickle down far enough to affect needy
families until now, which in Pavetti’s calculations is roughly equivalent to

“You didn’t see much of an increase in earnings or income. They lost cash
assistance, so they canceled each other out,” Pavetti added.

people who say this is a success story use four years of data, and then we have
17 years of data after that. They still spread this story that work requirements
are the best thing since sliced bread,” she said. “I always wonder what we’ve
done wrong in telling this story.”

House version of the farm bill is already making some people nervous.

“I think
the fear is that folks might lose some of these benefits with that new
proposal which includes that new provision that would require folks to work 20
hours a week or lose their benefits,” said Jose Chapa, a legislative
campaign coordinator for Justice for Farmworkers, part of Rural Migrant
Ministry in New York state.

are people who are not maybe able to find work. That’s a big fear in the
community,” Chapa told CNS. “If you are not able to find those 20 hours of work a
week, and you do have children that depend on meals, are they going to be
affected by it? It seems that with this restructuring, some families would be
affected by that change.”

A June
26 analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 42 percent of those
non-elderly adults receiving Medicaid benefits were already working full time,
and another 18 percent were working part time. Fourteen percent said illness or
disability kept them from working, 12 percent said they were caregivers and 6
percent said they were going to school. Of the remaining 7 percent, retirement
or the inability to find work were among the top reasons for not working.

rated as “mostly false” a Jan. 22 Heartland Institute claim that work requirements
have been “proven to help impoverished families move from dependency to

“Work requirements might help in some
instances, but the data also show that they leave some families worse off,” it
concluded. “The most inclusive, long-term research shows that requiring work in
order to get government benefits reduces the use of benefits and increases
employment. It does not, however, reliably produce enough income gains to lift
people out of poverty or free them from reliance on other government

what happened to those who didn’t meet the work requirements and got kicked off
federal assistance?

They were “living in whatever ways they could,” Pavetti said. “Some
of it was doubling up with relatives. Some of it was whatever odd jobs they
could get. Some of it was selling plasma. Some of it was living on their food
stamps. … Some kids got put in foster care.”

added, “It doesn’t take much — losing your job or your car breaking down — to
start the spiral.”

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Follow Pattison on Twitter: @MeMarkPattison

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