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More Evidence That Work Requirements Don’t Work

SNAP (food stamps) and Medicaid give many Americans, including many low-wage workers, access to nutritious food and health coverage. Despite their important roles, recent federal and state proposals and policies would take SNAP and Medicaid away from those who don’t meet a rigid work requirement. These policies will likely cause hardship for many and won’t likely boost work over the long term, as panelists at a Hamilton Project event agreed this week.

The panelists, as well as new research, underscored key findings about rigid work requirements:

  • SNAP and Medicaid beneficiaries are mostly working; among those not currently working, many are between jobs or aren’t working due to health issues or caretaking responsibilities, a new Hamilton Project analysis finds. Many low-wage workers face labor market instability, in part because their jobs have irregular hours and lack key benefits like sick leave, and the workers themselves often face barriers to work (e.g., they lack access to child care). The new Hamilton paper adds to the evidence refuting a key premise of work requirement policies — that they’re needed because a large number of participants choose not to work.
  • Work requirements are hard to administer and confusing for beneficiaries to navigate. Many who lose benefits due to work requirements may in fact be working or eligible for an exemption, but they struggle to navigate the administrative hurdles required to maintain their benefits. Panelist Marquita Little Numan of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families described how in Arkansas — the only state that has implemented Medicaid work requirements — many individuals have lost coverage likely because the bureaucratic requirements are complex. Over 8,400 beneficiaries lost coverage in the early months of implementation and thousands more will likely lose coverage in the coming months. Arkansas’ experience shows the gap between policymakers’ intentions and the real-world realities of administering large programs affecting millions of people — and the adverse side effects that can occur — CBPP President Robert Greenstein noted.
  • There’s little evidence that work requirements increase work over the long term — and much evidence that they increase hardship for many. Most participants who can work are working, and many who struggle to find work may need supports such as access to transportation or child care or intensive job training, which programs such as Medicaid and SNAP don’t provide on a large scale. Moreover, studies evaluating work requirements in programs that provided direct financial assistance to families in the 1990s (through the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF, program and its predecessor) found that the modest employment increases that did occur faded over time, as CBPP’s Sharon Parrott noted. These requirements largely didn’t reduce poverty; for some, in fact, they increased deep poverty (defined as income below half of the federal poverty line). People who lose benefits face serious consequences that include higher rates of hardship, such as higher risk of homelessness, utility shutoffs, and lower school attendance, Parrott explained, citing evidence from those who were sanctioned for not meeting work requirements. (A forthcoming CBPP paper will describe these negative effects in further detail.)
  • There are better ways to boost participants’ economic security than taking away their food assistance or health coverage. Strengthening work through both a higher minimum wage and an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, along with ensuring that economic security programs are robust enough to provide workers with support, can help workers maintain work and weather crises, Parrott explained. And Jason Furman, chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers and now a Harvard professor, described initiatives that could better support workers, such as expanding access to child care and family leave. He also mentioned that rather than focusing on public programs, broader strategies to create more jobs will be more effective in increasing work for those who aren’t currently working.