Work Requirements are a Powerful Anti-Poverty Tool

New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan offered a dystopian prediction for the impact of the welfare reform.

“If, in 10 years time, we find children sleeping on grates, picked up in the morning frozen, and ask, ‘Why are we here,scavenging, awful to ourselves, awful to one another, will anyone remember how it began?” he asked his colleagues during debate over the bill. “It will have begun on the House floor this spring and the Senate Chamber this autumn.”

Fortunately, we can report that Moynihan’s dismal reality didn’t come to pass. Quite the contrary, a 10-year check up on the bill from the left-leaning Brookings Institute found that after the legislation passed the numbers of children on welfare declined, the percentage of adults and parents who left welfare for employment increased dramatically, and the total income of low-income families shot up by more than 25 percent.

“Above all, experience with welfare reform since 1996 shows conclusively that most low-income families are capable of finding and holding jobs while, with government support, increasing the financial well-being of their children,” Brookings Senior Fellow Ron Haskins concluded. “Welfare reform has been a triumph for the federal government and the states — and even more for single mothers.”

Little surprise then that Republicans seek to implement reforms—specifically, work requirements—in other areas of the social safety net. It’s also not a surprise that despite the successful history of work requirements Democrats are adamantly opposed.

The debate kicked off again this week when President Trump announced new guidelines that allow states to impose work requirements for childless, able-bodied adults. The hope is that by creating incentives to work in return for government benefits, more Medicaid recipients will come to find the dignity of work and more taxpayers will feel confident that their dollars are being used wisely.

To be clear, most Medicaid recipients who are able to work do so. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that 6 in 10 non elderly adults are working, and that the majority of the remaining report reasons such as illness, caring for a family or going to school for not having a job.

Those statistics should not be viewed as a reason not to push forward with reform. They are a reason to make sure that it is done carefully. And the guidance issues by the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Systems suggests that it will be.

For instance, CMS encourages states to create exceptions for populations who cannot work (e.g. pregnant women, primary caregivers of dependents, victims of domestic violence, full-time students, etc.) or have other extenuating circumstances (e.g. treatment for opioid addiction or other substance use disorders). The guidance also suggests including a wide range of activities that satisfy work and community-engagement requirements, especially for Medicaid beneficiaries living in high areas of unemployment, and requires states to describe their strategies for linking individuals to resources such as job training, child care assistance, and transportation.

Sadly, none of this will stop Democrats from attempting to villainize the changes. But as Jason Riley writes in the Wall Street Journal, history and common sense are on Republicans’ side:

The chief complaint from liberals is that attaching work conditions to government benefits only hurts the poor and vulnerable, but the horror stories they predict never seem to materialize. The simple reality is that low-income individuals respond to incentives just like everyone else. And nudging people who are physically capable of holding down a job into the workforce has a track record of increasing incomes and lifting people out of poverty. …

“We’re talking about working-age adults who apply to the program because they say they have no earnings, and we ought to see if we can help them find work,” said Mr. Doar [who administered welfare programs in New York City under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg]. “For a long time these programs were told we could only do one thing at a time, and that is to enroll people. I think they can do more than just sign them up.”

Namely, we can help them find the dignity of work.