On Tuesday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing all federal agencies to review and strengthen work requirements for all federal poverty programs, including Medicaid, food stamps, housing, and others. The preface to the order invokes familiar rhetoric:
The United States and its Constitution were founded on the principles of freedom and equal opportunity for all. To ensure that all Americans would be able to realize the benefits of those principles, especially during hard times, the Government established programs to help families with basic unmet needs. Unfortunately, many of the programs designed to help families have instead delayed economic independence, perpetuated poverty, and weakened family bonds. While bipartisan welfare reform enacted in 1996 was a step toward eliminating the economic stagnation and social harm that can result from long-term Government dependence, the welfare system still traps many recipients, especially children, in poverty and is in need of further reform and modernization in order to increase self-sufficiency, well-being, and economic mobility.
Conservatives have hoped for years that shouting “Get a job!” loudly enough will induce people now on public assistance either to enter the workforce, or if not, to quietly fade from view. Although work requirements have proved ineffective time and again, hope dies last.
There are better ways to address the problems of our broken social safety net. Here are some points I have made in previous posts:
- The new executive order invokes the 1996 welfare-to-work reforms as a success story, but a careful review of the results shows that the effects of those reforms were disappointingly small.
- The main reason that work requirements have small effect on actual work behavior is that a majority of low-income people who can work already do work. Most of those who do not have paid jobs are working as unpaid caregivers, in school, or hampered by physical and mental health problems.
- Where requirements are introduced simply as a stick to drive people to work, they fail. To the extent they are successful, they must be backed up by substantial investment in training, job placement, and one-on-one counseling to cajole people into overcoming personal problems that may make them unattractive to employers. If state and federal governments are unwilling to invest in the administrative infrastructure needed to run work requirement programs well, they will do more harm than good.
- Often the biggest barriers to self-sufficiency are the punitive benefit reduction rates and other implicit and explicit marginal taxes on low-income workers. This earlier post provides details and explains how programs could be redesigned to reduce work disincentives.
The continuing conservative hope is that shouting “Get a job!” loudly enough will induce people now on public assistance either to the workforce, or if not, to quietly fade from view. Hope dies last.