For years, we have been fighting a narrative that giving money and support to people trying to make ends meet without requiring them to work discourages them from working. This is simply untrue and results in policies that are based on unfounded biases and increases the risk of people of all ages and abilities failing to receive the assistance they need.
Year after year, certain federal and state lawmakers seek to make this a priority despite the evidence that not only shows it is ineffective, but also demonstrates the substantial harm it causes vulnerable members of our community.
The President and House Speaker’s agreement to extend the nation’s debt limit through 2025 includes a very troubling provision that increases already-existing work requirements. After making severe cuts to over 16 million households’ SNAP access (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a.k.a. food stamps), the expansion of work requirements for SNAP, Medicaid, and TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) are being positioned by House Republicans as part of a list of demands they argue will lead to more employment and a stronger economy.
These are the very same requirements that have been shown over and over again to be ineffective. They do not help individuals or families increase income or become more financially stable, or “get back in the workforce” (Rules Committee Hearing at 26 min). What these requirements have been proven to do, however, is increase hardship. The number of people who will lose benefits without anything to replace it will increase. One million older adults and 500,000 others are expected to lose their food benefits as an outcome of the current proposal. It is also notable that disenrollment happens most often because of the complicated reporting and systems issues that go along with work requirements.
It’s not just the federal stage. Every legislative session, without fail, a handful of Missouri lawmakers attempt to expand and add work requirements to our social safety net services. This year, work requirements took aim at Medicaid. Other states that have tried implementing Medicaid work requirements did not see an increase in workforce participation. Instead, they only saw people lose their health coverage – from 25% in Arkansas to what would have been even higher numbers in New Hampshire (40%) and Michigan (30%) were the measures not overturned by the courts.
THE REAL IMPACT OF WORK REQUIREMENTS
If there was evidence that work requirements helped individuals and families stabilize their economic situation and moved them out of poverty, we would be all for that. But we know better. Medicaid program administration is already under-resourced and often ill-equipped. Studies have shown that work requirement programs do not result in any significant changes in employment. What hundreds of studies do show is that work requirements are more likely to reduce Medicaid rolls, increase the number of uninsured people in the state, and increase food insecurity–not because people aren’t working, but because of administrative drops and a reporting system that is difficult to navigate.
Work requirements fall terribly short of the intended outcomes of empowering stable employment.
Many lawmakers want to boil it down to a simple sound bite – people should have to work to get welfare. It is a simple assertion. It says state money should be used to favor labor force participation. That simple message may sound quite reasonable to a lot of people, including those who don’t understand the underlying and complicated contributors to poverty or those who believe that free healthcare and free food discourages people from working. Many others may root their support for work requirements in a desire for fiscal responsibility, overlooking the fact that a very small portion of the federal budget is actually spent on safety net programs, and that calls to “save our tax dollars” are sometimes used to create a false “us versus them” story. Creating division is the oldest tactic in the book – pitting people against one another to position yourself as the only ones who can save us from them. In this case, it creates two imaginary groups: working taxpayers (us) versus people who don’t take personal accountability for themselves or their families (them).
But this is not how poverty works. It is not how humanity should work. The strings we want to attach to getting our support are uniquely reserved for the people who are struggling the most. Cutting the services that keep us all afloat and thriving is not the way forward. Supporting people by helping them meet the most fundamental human needs is the best way toward increased, sustained, workforce participation and healthy communities.
Social supports should never be reliant on work requirements. And we most certainly cannot succumb to the relentless attempts of some legislators to increase work requirements, unless we want to watch poverty rates increase and community health factors decrease. Our advocacy and policy work needs to get at the systemic barriers people face, not take aim at personal motivations or (incorrectly) ascribe values to others. I suggest, instead, that our lawmakers and our advocacy work focus on ensuring we all have access to good physical and mental health care, food, education, a safe place to live, a job making a meaningful living, and equal access to a just criminal legal system. These are not things that only a few of us, or those who can buy it, should have access to.
Missouri’s situation mirrors the rest of the country: poverty and economic insecurity are growing alongside the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. The consequences are hungry families, unhealthy Missourians with less and less access to healthcare, compromised education, and elusive and nonexistent safe and affordable housing.
The impacts are devastating. Every year, approximately a quarter of a million people die from poverty and income inequality. This is simply unacceptable. Withholding access to food and healthcare is never the way forward. Giving people pathways to meaningful work is absolutely part of the solution, and things like education and good health have been proven to increase workforce participation. Our social safety nets are a critical piece of thriving communities, helping to fill the gaps when these things aren’t working equally well for everyone.
Indeed, let’s expect more. Not from people who are struggling, but from ourselves and from our lawmakers.