As president, Donald Trump has demonstrated consistent hostility to the notion that government should provide for low-income people. That sentiment frequently expresses itself as support for work requirements, which force beneficiaries to work a certain number of hours in order to keep receiving welfare. In April, Trump signed an executive order urging federal agencies to develop work requirements for a wide range of entitlement programs, on the basis that the government should “do everything within its authority to empower individuals by providing opportunities for work, including by investing in federal programs that are effective at moving people into the workforce and out of poverty.”
But do work requirements really help low-income people enter the workforce and leave poverty? A new report released by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities on Tuesday morning suggests that’s not the case. According to CBPP, work requirements for welfare can in fact plunge low-income people deeper into poverty. The report examines the consequences of state-level work-policy regimes as applied to the program most Americans probably think of when they hear the word “welfare”: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. Its findings are damning. Two million families have lost TANF benefits after their state sanctioned them for failing to meet work standards. Looking at existing work-requirement regimes, the left-leaning think tank concluded that state agencies charged with administering sanctions for TANF often do so in error, penalizing individuals who did actually meet a state’s work requirements. Further, the act of requiring a person to work for welfare doesn’t actually dismantle certain socioeconomic obstacles that can litter paths to employment:
Studies also show that many parents who lose benefits due to work requirements have significant employment barriers, including many that would qualify them for exemptions under most states’ work rules. Those losing benefits are more likely than other TANF parents to have physical, mental health, or substance use issues; to be fleeing domestic violence; to have low levels of education and limited work experience; or to face significant logistical challenges, such as lack of access to or funds to pay for child care and transportation.
States are also much more likely to penalize African-American beneficiaries for failing to meet work-requirement standards, CBPP found, a trend that expands rather than resolves racial wealth inequities. And while work requirements did shrink the number of households on welfare, they don’t reliably lead to higher rates of steady employment — in other words, despite what proponents suggest, the threat of losing TANF benefits doesn’t goad people into finding work. Work requirements can have other unintended consequences, too. Citing pilot programs introduced in 11 cities in the 1990s, CBPP found that the programs, considered together, “lowered poverty by an average of 2.1 percentage points but raised deep poverty by 2.9 percentage points.”
Arguments against work requirements aren’t new. CBPP’s researchers have previously found that work requirements keep TANF benefits from reaching Americans who need them — especially unemployed single mothers. And the think tank is hardly the only source of opposition to work requirements; In their book, $2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, researchers H. Luke Shaefer and Kathryn Edin also asserted that following the implementation of TANF (which mandates that states develop eligibility rules involving work requirements) in the mid-’90s, the number of American households living in extreme poverty, on $2 or less per day, more than doubled. Other research undermines the idea that work requirements lead to, well, work. A February report released by the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality acknowledged that in “some of the available causal studies, welfare reform has been shown to be responsible for raising employment rates between 2.9 and 3.9 percent.” But researchers added that attributing these gains to work requirements could “overstate the effects of welfare reform,” as there are other policies, like the Clinton-era expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, that could help explain higher employment rates.
If work requirements don’t consistently usher low-income workers into work — let alone work that pays a living wage — then what’s the point? The policy seems purely punitive, but don’t expect the Trump administration to abandon it soon. Trump officials aren’t the first politicians to treat poverty like a moral failing instead of a preventable material condition.