Friday, May 19, 2023

Republicans’ “Work Requirements” are Really Just Benefit Cut-offs for the Most Vulnerable

David Super

     With each passing day, it appears more likely that House Republicans will seek to provoke the first crisis (of likely several) in the budget negotiations over what they call “work requirements” for anti-poverty programs.  This certainly has nothing to do with deficit reduction:  the amount their proposals would save is only barely enough to pay for the deficit increases caused by their proposal to strip the IRS of enforcement resources – and would pale compared with the cost of their plans to extend expiring provisions of the Trump tax cuts. 

     But these proposals also are not about work.  Instead, the “work requirements” proposal involves taking benefits away from desperately poor people without regard to willingness (or, often, ability) to work.  That much of the news media largely gives Republicans a free pass in rebranding an eligibility purge as a “work requirement” is a testament to its disinterest in policy history or the well-being of the lowest-income members of our society – as well as perhaps a longing to pretend we are still fighting the battles of yesteryear, when our politics seemed a bit saner.

     Much of the criticism the purported “work requirements” have received appropriately focuses on Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), the two largest programs Republicans are targeting.  Yet the phoniness of “work requirements” is even more apparent in the case of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant that replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program in the 1996 welfare law. 

     With President Clinton and Members of Congress from both parties insisting that the point of the 1996 welfare law was moving idle recipients from welfare to work, reporters and voters could certainly be forgiven for assuming that was so.  In fact, 100% of the law’s budgetary savings came from deep cuts in food stamps (little of which had anything to do with work), denying subsistence benefits to immigrants legally in this country, and terminating disability benefits to children. 

     The 1996 law’s highest-profile provision – and one over which neither President Clinton nor many congressional Democrats raised significant objections – was ending AFDC’s individual entitlement to monthly assistance checks for very low-income families with children and sending the money saved to states as the TANF block grant.  States did not have to spend TANF funds on cash assistance to low-income families.  Former NFL quarterback Brett Favre has been in the headlines lately for having received millions of TANF funds from Mississippi for giving inspirational speeches.  (His possible legal exposure seems to come not from receiving TANF funds for that purpose but rather from failing to bother to give those speeches.)

     Any money states did spend on cash assistance to families (or its close equivalents) was subject to a work participation rate.  For one-parent families, at least half of the parents had to be engaged in countable work activities for thirty hours per week.  For two-parent families, at least 90% had to have at least one parent engaged in countable work activities at least 35 hours per week.  If a state failed to meet these work participation rate, it lost a portion of its TANF block grant and – much worse – was subject to an embarrassing public sanction that would inevitably be understood as allowing idleness. 

     States concluded that the 90% two-parent rate was utterly unmeetable because of the narrowness of the permissible activities, the administrative difficulties of tracking people in their first months receiving aid, and inevitable months when a parent failed to accrue the required hours due to injury, illness, or transportation breakdowns.  States saw the 50% one-parent rate as extremely difficult to meet for similar reasons and because of the staggering cost of the child care required.    

     The law, however, offered states an out.  Their required work participation rates would drop one percentage point for every percentage point their caseloads declined.  Thus, a state terminating assistance to half the families that had previously received it would have no work participation rate at all for the remaining one-parent families and would have a more manageable 40% rate for two-parent families.  It actually became more advantageous for states simply to cut off aid to a family than to get the family into work activities. 

     Across the political spectrum, states concluded it was too expensive and administratively burdensome to run the kinds of large work programs that most people assumed the 1996 law would create.  (A rare  exception was New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who made welfare recipients pick up trash from city parks without gloves while sharply reducing Parks Department employment.)  Instead, states focused on the caseload reduction credit, purged families en masse from their cash assistance programs, and met their work participation rates despite having very few recipients engaged in countable work activities for the required number of hours.  Many states had zero work participation rates for one-parent families.  Those that had some residual work participation rate often filled it not by giving work opportunities to recipients but by making token cash payments to non-recipients who were already working the required number of hours. 

     After initially cheering the precipitous decline in families getting aid, Republicans began attacking states for having so few people counted as working.  Even though the caseload reduction credit was their idea in a law they had written and passed, Republicans decried it as a loophole and again demanded tougher “work requirements.”  Predictably, these demands for “work requirements” ended the same way similar demands had a decade earlier. 

     A Republican Congress amended the TANF statute in 2006 to deny states any credit for caseload reductions up to that point in calculating their work participation rates.  It also prohibited some methods states had used to get aid to desperate families outside of the work participation rate structure. 

     States again had a choice between operating rigorous, tightly constrained work programs for cash assistance recipients or re-purging their already-shrunken rolls.  And again, across the political spectrum, states opted to pursue new caseload reduction credits and removed more desperately needy families from cash assistance. 

     When the Great Recession sharply increased the number of families needing aid, this strategy precluded states from meeting that need.  Indeed, states felt they could least afford to start substantial work programs with their budgets buckling as tax revenues declined.  President Obama’s 2009 stimulus package temporarily suspended the work participation rates and gave states extra funds to operate public job creation programs.  By this time, however, many states were fully committed to their caseload reduction strategies and unwilling or unable to turn back.  Thus, despite huge increases in need, about half the states saw their cash assistance caseloads stagnate or decline.  When the work participation rate suspension and job creation funding expired in a still-weak economy, the rest of the states turned again to the caseload reduction credit.  Very few of the genuine work programs the stimulus law had funded survived its expiration. 

     Having played the “tougher work requirements” card twice with very little pushback, House Republicans unsurprisingly are eager to go for the hat trick.  Their debt limit bill would again force states to purge their cash assistance programs – which at this point serve few but the most desperate families – to claim caseload reduction credits.  It also would eliminate the modest flexibility states have under the current law to provide cash aid to people who cannot work due to illness, injury, homelessness, the need to hide from an abusive partner, lack of transportation, or residence in an isolated rural area without accessible jobs. 

     Prior purges have made cash assistance unavailable to vast numbers of extremely poor families with no alternative.  The number of families receiving cash assistance in 1996 was about two-thirds the number of families in poverty that year.  By 2020, the number of families receiving cash assistance was just 21% of the number of families in poverty.  Most of those that remain face severe obstacles to work.   

States that declined to operate work programs for the far more work-capable recipients of the 1990s or 2000s are certainly not going to do so for the extremely difficult- and expensive-to-serve families that now get cash assistance. 

     Some states might well determine that providing cash assistance to parents with children is no longer viable.  This likely would result in significant numbers of children being removed from their parents and placed into foster care (where a federal entitlement to cash assistance remains).  This deeply anti-family policy is stunningly hypocritical for the party that claims to be the champion of traditional families.  More importantly, it would spell tragedy for countless parents and children while swamping states’ already overburdened foster care systems. 

     President Biden’s initial response to House Republicans’ demand for “work requirements” was that he voted for the 1996 welfare law, and its strong work requirements remain on the books.  He should not fall for the “work requirements” trick a third time. 


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