Supporters of Work Requirements Warn of Bureaucratic Nightmare

Experts who back the Trump administration’s plan to enforce work requirements in welfare programs say too much red tape can knock people off the rolls without encouraging work.

AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty
Erin Durkin
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Erin Durkin
April 22, 2018, 8 p.m.

The Trump administration has ramped up its efforts this month to get more beneficiaries of safety-net programs into the workforce by issuing an executive order promoting work requirements to “increase self-sufficiency, well-being, and economic mobility.”

While supporters of such requirements think this will generally encourage welfare-program recipients to find employment, several experts say they are worried about the structure of these provisions. They expressed concern about the federal agencies’ abilities to coordinate the implementation of these mandates and say a Republican proposal currently on the table is far too stringent.

Work requirements are not a new concept for public-assistance programs. Welfare was overhauled in 1996 with the creation of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which requires recipients to work. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program also requires certain recipients to work or they are limited to three months of benefits out of every three years.

“Unfortunately, many of the programs designed to help families have instead delayed economic independence, perpetuated poverty, and weakened family bonds,” states an executive order President Trump signed earlier this month ordering federal agencies to review programs where work requirements could be applied and assess whether current requirements are being enforced consistent with the law.

Supporters of the administration’s plan say a reassessment of public benefits is needed, but they warned that unless the stipulations encourage people to reenter the workforce—rather than just drop out of the programs—the proposal could be a bust.

Ron Haskins, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, said there needs to be coordination among the departments. “We should not have a situation where people have to simultaneously meet the requirements of more than one program,” he said.

“These need to be coordinated. I have not seen any evidence that the administration is doing anything about that. Maybe they are,” Haskins added. “My understanding of the first step is that they are asking all the departments to propose what they will do to strengthen work requirements, and maybe at that point then they will have interdepartmental coordination, which is often thought to be a thing impossible to do.”

The requirements also have to be achievable and provide a way for people to get back into the program should they slip up, said Mimi Teixeira, a welfare-policy fellow at the Heritage Foundation. However, she said that a Republican proposal in the 2018 farm bill does not strike that balance.

The provision, which was passed out of the House Agriculture Committee last week, would lock recipients out of SNAP for 12 months the first time they fail to meet the requirements and then 36 months for subsequent violations.

“That’s only an incentive for them to not get back into training, to not get back into education, to not get back into volunteering, and to just fall into more bad cycles and poor behavior,” Teixeira said. “It’s not the kind of sanction that is going to help people get out of poverty. It’s probably the kind that is going to kick people off of the rolls but not move them to a place where they are getting better.”

Recipients would be able to reenter the program if they obtain employment to meet the requirements or if they are no longer subject to the work requirements.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which estimates that 2 million people would lose their SNAP benefits under the proposed farm bill, described the requirements as unworkable.

“These provisions would force states to develop large new bureaucracies, but research suggests that these requirements would do little to increase employment,” the CBPP reported in a recent analysis. “This expensive and risky approach runs counter to evidence-based policy making, particularly since the results from work pilots established in the 2014 farm bill are not yet available.

“Moreover, experience suggests the proposed work requirements would leave substantial numbers of low-income people with various barriers to employment—such as very limited skills or mental health issues like depression—with neither earnings nor food assistance,” the report added.

Both Haskins and Teixeira think applying work requirements is the right move to get people on welfare programs back to work.

Peter Edelman, professor of law at Georgetown Law Center, vehemently disagrees, calling the administration’s push “a terrible idea.”

“The whole point of this is to knock people off or not get on the rolls—that’s what this is about,” he said. “It’s bureaucratic, and it’s expensive to do it. It’s just—all the way around, it’s absolutely an awful idea.”

Directing recipients toward job training would be a better strategy to help them find employment than relying on work requirements, some experts said.

“The thing that’s heartbreaking about this proposal is that instead of targeting that kind of assistance … to the people who really need it, by having this blanket requirement on everyone they spend a great deal of money on just trying to get states able to administer it and track people’s monthly responses; a very small amount of money is made available for actual training or jobs programs,” said Debbie Weinstein, executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs.

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