The Trump administration seems to be engaged in all kinds of war these days. Twitter war with Comey. Trade war with China. Nuclear war with North Korea (OK, not yet, but give it time).
But while these wars have dominated the headlines, there’s another war that’s gotten less attention: the war on poor people.
A more insidious development, however, is the push to attach work requirements to anti-poverty programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medicaid. This effort saw renewed momentum last week, as Trump issued an executive order directing federal agencies to strengthen enforcement of existing work requirements and consider creating new ones. House Republicans jumped on the bandwagon, releasing legislation that would make SNAP benefits conditional on working for “able-bodied” adults.
To many Americans, work requirements seem like a no-brainer. Why should their tax dollars support people who can support themselves?
“To many Americans, work requirements seem like a no-brainer. Why should their tax dollars support people who can support themselves?”
There are real answers to that seemingly rhetorical question, but to start, it’s worth noting America’s unique addiction to work. According to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the average American worker works 80 hours more per year than the average Canadian worker, 107 hours more per year than the average British worker and 420 hours more per year than the average German worker. Meanwhile, all of those countries guarantee at least 10 paid vacation days per year, while the U.S. guarantees none. Sick leave is a similar story.
Why is the U.S. such an outlier? At a basic level, Americans believe much more in self-determination. According to Pew data, 57 percent of Americans think success in life is determined primarily by forces within our control, compared with a median of 37 percent in European nations. Accordingly, 73 percent of Americans think it’s very important to work hard to get ahead in life while only 35 percent of Europeans think so.
This belief lies at the heart of the American dream, which says that if you work hard, you can achieve success no matter how much the deck is stacked against you. The implication, it seems, is that if you aren’t successful, you haven’t worked hard enough, and you deserve to suffer.
At least if you’re poor. If you’re lucky enough to be born into a rich family, you can inherit as much as $22 million tax free and never work a day in your life. And if you use some of that inheritance to take out a mortgage, you can deduct the interest from your taxes, no questions asked.
In other words, the government gives rich people all kinds of benefits without ever requiring them to work. It’s only when poor people are trying to eat or receive medical care that politicians demand they work first.
“The government gives rich people all kinds of benefits without ever requiring them to work.”
Yet even if work requirements applied to benefits for the rich and poor alike, they would have several problems.
The first problem is implementation. Currently, programs like SNAP and Medicaid are available to anyone who falls under a certain income threshold (often the federal poverty line), making them simple to administer. Work requirements add complexity by requiring “able-bodied” adults to work or participate in other approved activities, such as job training programs, for a certain number of hours per week in order to receive benefits.
These additional rules may not sound that complex, but in practice, there is no universal standard for who is an able-bodied adult, what activities should count, and what the required hours should be. Further, once the government determines what the rules are, it needs new personnel and systems to enforce them.
Work requirements, therefore, end up being time-consuming and costly to implement. Kentucky, for instance, plans to spend $374 million over the next two years to implement its new work requirements for Medicaid. That’s right ― rather than paying to expand coverage, Kentucky is cutting coverage to pay for its new bureaucracy. Kafka would be proud.
Beyond administrative issues, there are two deeper problems with work requirements.
First, work requirements only make sense if everyone can get a job. However, the unemployed people have outnumbered job openings for the past 15 years. Even today, with the economy at what most economists consider to be full employment, there are 372,000 more unemployed people than jobs available.
“People who were subject to a work requirement were no more likely to be working after five years than those who were not.”
Second, work requirements don’t actually promote work. Evaluations of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program have found that those subject to a work requirement were no more likely to be working after five years than those who were not. Likewise, 60 percent of non-disabled, working-age Medicaid beneficiaries already work, and a majority of those who don’t work face significant barriers to doing so, such as mental illness or the need to take care of a family member.
In some cases, work requirements may even make it harder to work. Many low-income people have arthritis, asthma or other serious health conditions; without access to treatment, they won’t be able to take jobs involving any sort of physical labor (which is most low-paying jobs). Conversely, access to health care can facilitate work. In Ohio, 75 percent of new Medicaid enrollees had an easier time searching for work after acquiring coverage, and 52 percent reported that coverage made it easier to work.
Many Americans believe work is the precursor to health, wealth and happiness. However, the opposite is just as true: People need to have basic human needs met before they can work. That’s why any policy that prioritizes work above all else will not only get priorities backward ― it will fail to achieve its own objectives.
Unless, of course, the real objective is to punish the poor and redistribute income upward. Given the Trump administration’s track record, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion.
Aaron Tobert is a second-year Master of Public Affairs student Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School concentrating in economics and public policy.