In an attack on essential government services that provide much needed aid to millions of Americans, President Donald Trump signed an executive order earlier this month laying the groundwork for a fundamental change in welfare administration that would require certain recipients of welfare to work in order to access government services like health-care and public housing.
The order, titled “Reducing Poverty in America by Promoting Opportunity and Economic Mobility”, advises government departments to review programs that do not have work requirements and determine whether or not they can be implemented for “work-capable people”. These Departments include Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Education, Transportation, Labor, Commerce, Agriculture, and the Treasury.
This isn’t the first time the Trump administration has indicated its intent to implement work requirements for government programs. In January of this year, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced they would approve changes in state administration of Medicaid that would require some Medicaid recipients to work in exchange for health care. In February, a draft document was released detailing plans to require tenants in Section 8 housing to meet certain work requirements in order to stay housed. Republicans in Congress are also proposing work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
If fundamentally reshaping the nature of government assistance programs by requiring recipients to work seems like a really bad idea, well, that’s because it is. For one, we know these programs don’t actually help people. Work requirements were part of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program implemented during the Clinton administration. In 2011, the state of Kansas began mandating work requirements for welfare recipients. Neither program demonstrated an ability to bring people out of poverty. In fact, the only clear outcome from both programs was a reduction in case work and administrative costs.
It’s also not clear who these work requirements are supposed to target. For instance, while a number of states are planning to implement work requirements for Medicaid, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation 60% of adults on Medicaid are already working. An additional 14% say they are ill or disabled, 6% are in school, and 12% are acting as caregivers. While the Trump administration would have you believe government assistance programs have, as Trump’s executive order put it, “delayed economic independence, perpetuated poverty, and weakened family bonds”, that’s simply not the case. The vast majority of recipients of Medicaid are already working or sick, fulfilling obligations to family, or in school.
So if work requirements fail to address a problem which, upon closer inspection, doesn’t even exist in the first place, why doth Trump persist? For one, work requirements place an additional burden on recipients of government assistance, who in addition to making ends meet, have to do the additional work of proving they are employed or shouldn’t be subject to work requirements because they don’t meet the administrations definition of “work-capable”. By constructing another obstacle to receiving aid, one with deadlines and requirements not all people will be able to navigate, we get closer to the truth: work requirements are part and parcel of a political agenda that places responsibility for poverty, homelessness, and lack of access to services on the individual and seeks to punish them accordingly.