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Earlier this week, the White House released an executive order directing federal agencies to promote employment for people on public assistance programs by strengthening existing work requirements or creating new ones where they don’t currently exist.
While the order doesn’t actually change policy since most such reforms need to be enacted by Congress, it does represent another indication of the Trump administration’s commitment to earned success as the best path to dignity and prosperity, following their announcement that they would permit states to impose work requirements onto Medicaid – which Obamacare expanded to millions of able-bodied, childless, working-age adults.
Americans want to work, provide for themselves and their families, and earn their way to a better life – and work requirements help them do so. This track record has been proven at the local, state, and federal levels.
For example, after the enactment of a work requirement, from 1995 to 2013 New York City’s welfare caseload fell by more than 700,000 people. Employment rates for single mothers increased from 43 percent in 1994 to 63 percent in 2009, and the percentage of children living in poverty fell from 42 percent in 1994 to less than 29 percent in 2008.
In Georgia, the three counties that first implemented work requirements saw food stamp dependency fall 75 percent in a year. In Maine, the welfare caseload fell nearly 80 percent during the first three months of the work requirement, and incomes of the able-bodied adults removed from food stamps increase 114 percent in one year.
At the federal level, after the enactment of bipartisan reform in 1996 that included a work requirement, welfare caseloads dropped 50 percent. Poverty rates for single-parent families and African-American children also dropped to historic lows.
Results like these are why work requirements are so noncontroversial. A 2017 Harvard University poll found that 72 percent overall – including 64 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of independents – supported requiring low-income, able-bodied, childless adults to work to receive Medicaid benefits.
Still, opponents deride the policy by distracting from these facts. They criticize that existing benefits are not generous enough, that a minimum wage increase would be more effective, and that the job market does not allow enough opportunity for work.
First, the debate over the generosity of existing benefits is unrelated to work requirements. Work requirements are intended to eliminate a disincentive wherein people can lose benefits for earning more. While handouts can make poverty materially less miserable – and there is a reasonable debate to be had over what they should provide – ultimately work is the only path out of poverty.
Census data show that as of 2014, nearly 62 percent of working-age adults in poverty did not work at all, and less than 12 percent worked full-time. In 2015, just 2.4 percent of working-age individuals who worked full-time, year-round lived in poverty – and these numbers do not take into account what they received from the more than 80 federal benefit programs and services for low-income people in the United States.
As the American Enterprise Institute’s Angela Rachidi explained, “low wages are not the primary cause of poverty; low work rates are.”
This data also debunks the idea that increasing the minimum wage is a more effective anti-poverty tool and that raising it would reduce taxpayer spending on welfare.
28 states raised their minimum wage between 2003 and 2007, but research from economists at Cornell and American University found no associated reduction in poverty – since most Americans in poverty don’t work, they can’t benefit from a minimum wage increase. Moreover, researchers from San Diego State University found that on net, minimum wage increases had little or no effect on taxpayer spending on means-tested programs.
Finally, there is the idea that the economy simply does not provide enough opportunity for everyone who wants to work. While recent tax and regulatory reforms are spurring economic growth and job creation, lawmakers can always increase opportunity and reduce inequality by eliminating cronyism and barriers to work such as corporate welfare and occupational licensing laws that disproportionately harm poorer Americans, young people, and people of color.
Still, there are currently more than 6.3 million open jobs across the country, and a study from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce estimated that of the 55 million job openings that will be created through 2020, 66 percent will not require a college degree.
Work requirements are popular because Americans believe in the dignity that comes with work, in providing people a hand-up, and in ensuring the safety net is preserved for society’s most vulnerable.
Work requirements will not only help ensure that essential public assistance programs can focus on the most vulnerable, they will also help provide millions of Americans a path to a better, happier, and more prosperous life.