Weaponizing Employment Against the Poor

August 14, 2019

Career

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Albert Einstein elegantly once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. This adage comes to mind when we see that yet again work requirements are being used as a bludgeon to combat Americans who live in poverty and who are in need of safety-net programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), HUD housing assistance, and if President Trump has his way, even Medicaid.

The White House Council of Economic Advisers has recommended work requirements for the most extensive welfare programs and the current administration has mandated that federal agencies alter their presumably lax welfare program standards. These moves are premised on the continuing notion that the poor are a drain on federal resources due to their laziness, recklessness, and lack of ambition. So here we go again, concluding that the poor are so, solely because of their own deficient behavior and must be made to work harder to receive assistance from this government.

It’s not that simple.

Is this work requirement approach fair in that recipients of aid (excluding children, elderly and disabled) should be made to show an attempt to earn their government supports, which allegedly incentives people to not be poor, or is this a kick to the poor and disenfranchised when they’re already down?

It’s worth examining a few of points about welfare work requirements:

1. According to the US Census Bureau the 2017 poverty rate was 12.3%, a 0.4% decrease from the year before. Since 2014 the poverty rate has fallen 2.5%. So if the current trend line is a declining poverty rate why is a harsh condition like work requirements for the poor necessary at this time?

2. This effort was last tried under Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich with their 1996 welfare reform legislation. We’ve had a couple decades to see how that has gone and studies like those from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and in the book Making Ends Meet (Edin and Lein) show that despite short term marginal improvements in employment they were not sustainable, mostly due to necessary and increased living expenses, absorbing any work generated financial gains.

3. Where are these jobs that the poor are supposed to get? If you’ve spent most of your life in poverty chances are quite low you can pick up a knowledge-economy job quickly. We’ve all heard how the traditional manual labor jobs are drying up, so what’s left? Lousy-waged part-time jobs with unpredictable and changeable hours is what’s left.

4. If the government feels the need to pick on somebody shouldn’t it be the employers of vast numbers of unskilled and low-skilled who pay their workers, including the working poor, insufficient wages that in turn need to be underwritten by the American tax payers?

Now one place where there could be political agreement is in the government providing subsidized high quality work training requirements targeted to actually helping the poor get the knowledge and skills needed for a globalized and digitized economy. Currently, training requirements can be in lieu of work requirements, but their effectiveness remains questionable.

The causes and cures for poverty are varied, complex, and far beyond the scope of this piece. But if we as a society are truly interested in ameliorating the condition of poverty (as we should be!) we need to be looking for demonstrably beneficial interventions that measurably make positive differences. Requiring the poor to get a low-end job that increases their child care and transportation costs just to prove they’re not milking the system or making them pay for a hand up from those of us with tax paying means is not a humane way to go about it.