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The Empty Promise of Work Requirements

June 1, 2017 at 4:15 PM

President Trump and some congressional Republicans are embracing proposals to let states impose harmful work requirements on Medicaid beneficiaries, and they’ve also touted as a work requirement a harsh three-month time limit on SNAP (food stamp) benefits for childless working-age adults who aren’t working at least half time, claiming it will push very poor recipients into jobs. These policymakers say they’re committed to evidence-based policymaking, but they ignore the evidence that work requirements won’t solve the labor market challenges that unemployed individuals face.

Republican interest in work requirements comes as Trump is advancing other policies that — despite his promise to help more people find and keep jobs — will move in the other direction. His budget, for instance, would cut programs that help jobless individuals get the training they need or find a job, as we’ve explained.

Work requirements don’t build the skills that individuals need to succeed in today’s labor market. They don’t create jobs where they don’t exist. They don’t convince employers to hire people with limited skills or criminal backgrounds. They don’t address the need for supportive services like child care and transportation. They don’t address employment barriers like mental or physical health problems. And, critically, they don’t reflect the fact that many Medicaid and SNAP recipients already work, but don’t earn enough to meet their basic needs.

A comprehensive review of work requirement experiments and policies for cash assistance recipients shows:

  • Employment increases among cash assistance recipients who were subject to work requirements were modest and faded over time. For the recipients, employment rose significantly in the first two years of programs that mandated participation in work-related activities but, by the fifth year, the difference in employment rates between those who faced work requirements and those who didn’t had faded. Over five years, at least three-quarters of recipients worked, regardless of whether they faced work requirements.
  • Stable employment among cash assistance recipients subject to work requirements proved the exception, not the norm. The share of recipients subject to work requirements who worked stably — i.e., in 75 percent of the quarters in years three through five — was small, ranging from 22.1 to 40.8 percent.
  • Over the long term, the most successful programs supported efforts to boost the education and skills of those subject to work requirements, rather than simply requiring them to search for work or find a job. The two most successful welfare-to-work programs, in Portland, Oregon, and Riverside, California, are often characterized as “work first” programs that required individuals to find jobs quickly, but both supported participation in education or training for some participants. For example, the Portland program, which had the most significant long-term impacts on earnings, initially assigned some participants to short-term training programs and encouraged them to hold out for better-paying jobs.
  • Most cash assistance recipients subject to work requirements stayed poor, and some became poorer. Although recipients were likelier to be employed within two years of facing work requirements, their earnings weren’t enough to lift them out of poverty — and, in some programs, the share of families living in deep poverty rose. Only two of 13 programs studied significantly reduced the share of families living in poverty, and in all of them, recipients facing work requirements were likelier to live in deep poverty than above the poverty line.
  • Voluntary employment programs can significantly boost employment without the negative impacts of ending basic assistance for individuals who can’t meet mandatory work requirements. The main downside of imposing work requirements on public benefit recipients is the harm they can cause to the individuals — and their families — who can’t comply and lose essential assistance as a result. The results from a rigorous evaluation of the Jobs-Plus demonstration, an employment program for public housing residents, suggest that voluntary work programs can be successful without the harmful consequences that typically accompany work requirements.

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