Published May 17, 2023
A debt ceiling endgame could be in sight, even if an agreement is far from a sure thing. And part of the deal in helping America avoid default may be tightening work requirements on safety-net programs.
It may not be an obvious play. The biggest drivers of our federal deficits are entitlement spending on Social Security and Medicare. Prime-age labor force participation rates are at their highest in the past 15 years. And the potential consequences of default far outweigh domestic policy disagreements.
Yet Republicans have leverage in these debt ceiling negotiations, whether the Biden White House wishes to acknowledge it or not, and safety-net reform has emerged as a place of some consensus on the right. According to Punchbowl News’ Jake Sherman, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy now sees work requirements as a “red line” in any potential deal.
Done right, a debt ceiling deal that improved work requirements in some social welfare programs could be a political winner for the president and Republicans. Of course, that caveat — “done right” — may be tricky to accomplish.
Republicans have talked about a wide range of work requirements, ranging from food assistance (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), health coverage for low-income Americans through Medicaid, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the successor to the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, which was the main source of cash welfare for most of the 20th century. Today, the TANF program provides states funds for job training, child care, work support and some direct cash assistance.
Not all of these work requirement proposals are created equal. Medicaid, in particular, is a bad fit. When Arkansas piloted Medicaid work requirements in 2017, their implementation was plagued by inaccurately kicking eligible individuals off of coverage and a website that proved “nearly impossible” to navigate. Significantly, a major study found no impact on employment, but higher rates of medical debt and delayed medical care.
And, on a more theoretical level, the logic breaks down. The point of work requirements is that people should work in order to receive public benefits. But if they are suffering from conditions that make it difficult to work without health care, taking away their coverage will make them less, rather than more likely, to work. Even the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation has argued employment or job training requirements in Medicaid “won’t work,” since emergency rooms have an obligation to provide treatment even to uninsured patients.
On SNAP, however, Republicans are on more solid ground. Work requirements already do exist for access to food assistance, on paper. Currently, able-bodied adults without dependents ages 18 to 49 must work or volunteer 80 hours per month to receive food assistance. Those requirements were suspended for Covid-19, but as the American Enterprise Institute’s Kevin Corinth explored, a number of waivers and loopholes means these work requirements are not scheduled to take full effect. A congressional fix to restore that expectation, especially in a tight labor market, seems like an appropriate area of focus.
Lastly, the TANF program is likely due for a rethink as well. As Semafor’s Joseph Zeballos-Roig reported, progressives are nervous about putting TANF on the table in debt ceiling talks. TANF already includes some work requirements, but, more importantly, it has had its funding set at $16.5 billion each year since 1996 (and the funding has not been adjusted for inflation). As a result, only 1.1 million households received TANF at some point during 2020, down from over 4 million in the mid-1990s.
Democrats may not like this starve-the-beast approach to safety-net spending, but taking a firm stand against tightening already-existing work requirements seems like the wrong hill to die on. For instance, as Matt Weidinger, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, has noted, according to the Congressional Research Service, California pays SNAP participants $10 a month so they can be counted as “working.” This artificially inflates the state’s metrics on getting aid recipients employed. Republicans seek to rein that practice in, and addressing their concerns could help lay the groundwork for more productive conversations around how to improve TANF when default isn’t looming.
For his part, President Joe Biden has worried progressive members of his caucus with his openness to discussing additional work requirements. In 1996, Biden, then a US Senator from Delaware, spoke about the importance of replacing the “culture of welfare” with the “culture of work.” And with an eye toward reelection, the White House is aware that opposing “work for welfare” may make it harder to appeal to mainstream voters.
Biden has ruled out work requirements for Medicaid, per remarks he made to the press Wednesday morning. But coming to the table on SNAP and TANF work requirements could see the president position himself as the voice of moderation between House Republicans and progressive Democrats, shoring up Biden’s perceived centrist bona fides.
Even if the implementation of those efforts can sometimes be shaky, Republicans know Americans like the idea of encouraging work for safety net benefits. A 2017 Politico/Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health poll found 74% of US adults said they supported work requirements for able-bodied adults without young children in order to receive SNAP benefits.
And research indicates that work plays an essential role in stable communities and strong families. Especially in the case of non-disabled adults without dependents, the idea of asking for a tangible connection to the workforce in exchange for public aid has a commonsense appeal.
The challenge is whether work requirements could establish those connections without leaving out the disabled or those with children at home. Picking the right spots to inject a stronger connection to work could be politically powerful, so long as it is done with care. Pursuing those opportunities could lead to better safety net politics and, more importantly, avoid a catastrophic default.
Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where his work with the Life and Family Initiative focuses on developing a robust pro-family economic agenda and supporting families as the cornerstone of a healthy and flourishing society.
Picture from CNN