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Behavioral Science Shows Why Work Requirements Don’t Work

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Taking government benefits away from people who don’t meet work requirements ignores a body of scientific evidence that these policies make it harder for people to find and maintain employment, according to a new report.

That’s because such policies — a central piece of Republican policymakers’ agenda — violate three core principles of behavioral science on how to reduce poverty: (1) cutting the cognitive costs (mental efforts) of participating in a public benefit program, (2) creating “slack” (a cushion of resources, time, and attention) for participants, and (3) reframing narratives around benefit programs and empowering individuals.

A key tenet of behavioral science is that context matters when people make decisions and, for those in poverty, the context is one of chronic scarcity — of resources, time, and attention. People living in poverty often face one crisis after another, draining the mental resources needed to solve new problems and plan for the long term.

Therefore, according to the report’s authors from ideas42, which specializes in using behavioral science to improve public benefit and related programs, work requirements are inappropriate because they:

  1. Dramatically raise the cognitive costs of participating in a program by imposing burdensome compliance demands. Work requirements increase the burden of accessing benefits, such as by imposing complex requirements for recipients to report their work activities or exemptions. Recipients whose cognitive resources are already taxed easily can miss an important detail required to maintain benefits. Ultimately, those who need the programs the most will lose access to them.
  2. Remove slack from the already complex lives of people living with low incomes. Policies informed by behavioral science would create a cushion of resources, time, and attention to help people focus on efforts to escape poverty. The added rules and complexities of work requirements don’t reflect the reality of the lives of those in poverty: children get sick and many jobs don’t have paid sick leave; while families and individuals must make tough decisions between complying and taking care of their other needs.
  3. Promote harmful narratives among program staff and administrators that disempower participants. Work requirements propagate a false idea that some people in poverty don’t deserve assistance. Such policies recast case workers and eligibility workers as accountants and gatekeepers, who focus on compliance rather than on the needs of families and individuals.

The consequences of instituting work requirements and ignoring the growing body of scientific evidence are steep. A mother with a chronic health condition will miss critical check-ups with her doctor if she loses medical assistance, generating worse health outcomes over the long term. A low-wage worker with a variable schedule could lose SNAP (formerly food stamps) benefits and his ability to afford food if his work hours drop below the requirement (even though he can’t control the number of hours he works). A family experiencing homelessness may lose their eligibility for a housing subsidy and be unable to move to a permanent home. The loss of benefits can create other hardships for children, like problems in school and more use of emergency rooms, as we’ve seen when work requirements were imposed on families receiving cash assistance.

“If we want to support people in building a better life,” the ideas42 authors conclude, “work requirements simply won’t work.” A better path forward, they suggest, is expanding employment and training and subsidized child and elder care and raising take-home pay.

Ife Floyd

Director of TANF Research and Analysis