With Congress considering adding work requirements in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps), I have been reflecting on what I learned while running SNAP and other safety-net programs in New York City for Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The case for work requirements begins with values. When it came to adults able to work, Bloomberg always emphasized what he learned from his parents: work was expected, and any job was better than no job. Work requirements also express the value that employment has benefits beyond a simple paycheck, that it is an essential component of individual and family well-being. They reflect the fundamental value that those who receive public assistance and can work, should work. It also happens to be what an overwhelming majority of Americans from both parties believe.
Managing government safety-net programs also made it clear that the only way out of poverty is through earnings. SNAP and other safety net programs can and do reduce material hardship, but for non-workers, receiving support from such programs alone is not enough to raise incomes above the poverty line. If people are to escape poverty, earnings must be part of the equation. Those of us in favor of work requirements are also in favor of work supports that combined with earnings from jobs have brought millions of Americans out of poverty, and could do even more in the future.
In experiments in Milwaukee, and Oregon, labor force participation rates increased (which should be a central goal in our current state of near-full employment), wages increased, and child poverty decreased as a result of work-first initiatives for welfare recipients.
But the best evidence we have for the success of work requirements is the dramatic national increase of about 15 percentage points in labor force participation among never-married mothers (from about 45 percent to about 60 percent) in the aftermath of 1996 Welfare Reform, which added work requirements to our cash welfare system.
While a healthy late-1990s economy, and the earned income tax credit played a role in poverty reduction, no credible scholar denies that work requirements were key. Despite later economic slowdowns, the poverty rate for households headed by single mothers (after accounting for taxes and transfers) never returned to pre-2000 levels. Today, it’s still below what it was in 1995 thanks to benefit programs that encourage and rewards recipients for working.
Today’s economy reinforces the power of work and earnings to help people escape poverty. The Census Bureau’s coming release of official poverty numbers will announce that poverty has dropped, possibly to historic lows, because more people who once did not work have gotten back to work and earnings. Sadly, this number could be even lower — if programs like SNAP and Medicaid did more to promote work.
While many who run these benefit programs believe that helping recipients find work is not their job, this only keeps the poor trapped in a cycle of poverty. Work requirements can change that.
Some experts worry about the potential harm of work requirements, but there is little evidence to back up their claims. A commonly expressed concern is that work requirements increase deep poverty, a claim that University of Chicago economist Bruce Meyer has proved to be unfounded. Using data from state administrative records, Meyer found that deep poverty is extremely rare, and has not increased meaningfully since the 1990s welfare reform. Instead, he found that about half of those classified as members of the “extreme poor” actually have incomes above the poverty line after accounting for safety net benefits.
Some caveats about the administration of these work requirements still apply. For those who are already working, proving compliance should be quick and easy. Children should be protected from their parent’s offenses, and not all benefits should be cut. Disability claims must be treated carefully, with allowances made for those who have applied for, but not yet been awarded, disability benefits. Jobs and job training should be a primary goal with broad options for how to meet requirements.
During the roughly seven-year period between the official end of the recession in 2009 and the return to pre-recession employment levels in 2016, the absence of work requirements contributed to high poverty rates, with labor force participation remaining at historic lows as programs like SNAP and Medicaid grew and subsidized the lack of work. It shouldn’t take this long for low-income families to recover from an economic downturn. If we pass work requirements, families won’t have to wait as long.