Most Americans think that work in exchange for government benefits is common sense. For safety-net benefits, work-capable beneficiaries should begin to work, look for work, or participate in education and training at least part time.
That’s a reasonable ask and essential to long-term well-being. The Republicans in the House of Representatives get that.
The draft text for raising the debt ceiling includes several safety-net work-requirement changes, including work requirements for work-capable adults without children in both Medicaid and food stamps. The federal government would save between $110 billion and $120 billion over 10 years as those who choose not to work would no longer receive those benefits.
While work requirements are now part of the debt conversation, and savings to the federal budget are important, it’s vital to focus on why work matters for low-income men and women. Expecting employment of work-capable adults who depend on the safety net is a key first step to their long-term well-being.
Welfare programs with work requirements have positive effects on recipients and society; namely, reducing poverty and increasing marriage. Entitlement programs for able-bodied adults without any requirement to work essentially have the opposite effects.
Work-based welfare systems are effective in reducing poverty. Before welfare reform in the 1990s, single-parent poverty had remained static for decades. Welfare reform replaced a welfare program without work requirements (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) with a program that partially required work (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families). As a result, poverty among single-parent families fell by two-thirds.
Work-based welfare also strengthens marriage. Before welfare reform, the share of children living in married families had been dropping rapidly for decades. After enactment of welfare reform, this decline came to an abrupt halt.
As a result, some 9 million additional children now live in married, rather single-parent, families.
The data is clear: When families have at least one working parent, the positive effects go beyond economic outcomes. We also see increases in overall family happiness on a variety of measures.
When unemployment lasts more than six months, it’s also associated with decreased well-being, even measurably affecting mortality, reducing life expectancy by as much as a year and a half.
When mothers who were formerly dependent on welfare find employment, we see increased physical health, as well as emotional and psychological health. There are even better educational outcomes, as well as improved health and behavioral well-being for their children.
Neither food stamps nor the Medicaid program have an active work requirement for able-bodied adults. The food stamp program (SNAP) now serves 42.3 million individuals—a sharp 5.1 million-person increase over pre-pandemic enrollment.
In 2019, 39.5% of beneficiaries are families with children and only 13.1% were able-bodied adults without any dependents. Food stamp spending has substantially risen with enrollment and benefit increases. In 2020, the food stamp program cost $79.1 billion. That figure continued to rise—by 2022, outlays hit $119.5 billion.
The situation is even worse in the Medicaid program. As of 2022, 92.3 million individuals were enrolled in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program—an increase of 21.69 million since pre-pandemic enrollment. Total Medicaid spending was $752.8 billion in fiscal 2021, of which the federal match covers 69.5%.
Republicans have continued advocating for work expectations for all work-capable adults in safety-net programs. Both the 2017 House-passed health care reform bill and the 2018 House-passed farm bill had a simple work requirement: Work-capable adults with school-aged children would be expected to work, look for work, or participate in training and education at least part time, 20 hour a week. Unfortunately, those efforts to connect welfare to work have been blocked by most Democrats, who fear that work expectations will lead to some low-income Americans losing safety net benefits.
Connecting more dependent Americans to work is a good thing. While saving federal funds is an important aspect of the debt-ceiling discussion, work requirements are also an essential piece of putting long-term well-being at the heart of our safety-net programs.
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