As President Joe Biden and House Republicans continue to engage in plodding negotiations to raise the nation’s borrowing cap, social safety net programs are on the line. Democrats insist that they will not accept additional work requirements for benefits like Medicaid or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, but Republicans seem to consider it a red line—and the president may be open to their point of view.
House Republicans seem particularly in favor of imposing work requirements for able-bodied, childless adults; this group is already subject to such requirements to receive SNAP benefits but not for Medicaid. The House-passed measure that raised the debt ceiling—in exchange for significant spending caps and rolling back several Democratic priorities—included additional work requirements for this population receiving SNAP and Medicaid benefits. The bill raised the age for work requirements for childless adults from 49 to 55 on SNAP and imposed new requirements for the same age group receiving Medicaid benefits.
Although the White House has said that Biden will not accept any deal that would “push Americans into poverty,” the president himself has indicated publicly that he would be willing to accept additional restrictions for low-income Americans to receive aid.
But it is an open question as to who will ultimately shoulder these new burdens. Cutting benefits for families with young children or the elderly carries enough of a risk of “bad optics” to make it a politically difficult option. Childless adults, on the other hand, may be considered less deserving of string-free benefits by the general public and thus easier to subject to additional work requirements. A recent poll by Axios-Ipsos shows that majorities of Americans support work requirements for SNAP and Medicaid.
“If you’re not caring for preschool children, and you’re not caring for disabled parents, how are you spending your day?” said Representative Glenn Thompson, the chair of the House Agriculture Committee. Thompson will be leading negotiations for the farm bill, the massive legislation that includes a title that funds SNAP, and spearheaded the work requirement provisions in the Republican debt ceiling bill. “There are jobs that are out there, and we will provide a pathway through the SNAP title that will allow you to achieve those,” Thompson continued.
However, evidence shows that work requirements often do not result in increased employment or income, but instead push more people off their benefits. “It’s hard to see [additional work requirements] as anything but a stealth way of undermining these kinds of assistance programs. It just makes it politically palatable,” said Pamela Herd, a professor in the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University who researches the bureaucratic obstacles associated with the social safety net.
SNAP already has work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents between the ages of 18 and 49, commonly referred to by the somewhat unpleasant acronym of ABAWDs. In order to receive SNAP benefits, ABAWDs must work or participate in a work program, or a combination of the two, at least 20 hours per week. They are subject to a time limit: If ABAWDs do not meet the work requirements for three months in a three-year period, they lose their benefits. The three-month limit has been waived in times of dire economic need, such as the aftermath of the Great Recession and the coronavirus pandemic. ABAWDs accounted for only 7 percent of SNAP recipients in 2019, fewer than two million people.
A 2021 report by the Urban Institute, examining the reinstatement of the time limit for ABAWDs receiving SNAP benefits after the Great Recession, found that there was no evidence the time limit increased employment or annual earnings. Indeed, the “most common outcome” of the change in policy was “to be off SNAP and not employed a year after time limit reinstatement.”
The Congressional Budget Office found in a 2022 report that the work requirement “slightly increases the employment of the oldest of the workers who are subject to it”; however, SNAP recipients in their late forties account for only around 15 percent of those workers. The report also found that the requirement “reduces the average income of ABAWDs,” because it causes many of them to stop receiving SNAP benefits. Many ABAWDs are homeless, and most have little to no source of income outside of SNAP. (Thompson noted that SNAP is intended to be supplemental—it is in the very name of the program.) More recently, the CBO estimated that 275,000 SNAP recipients would lose their benefits each month if the Republican plan were enacted, with another 19,000 receiving smaller benefits.
However, Thompson noted that community service and employment training programs would also count toward fulfilling the work requirement. If a person loses their job between the ages of 50 and 55, it could be difficult to be hired elsewhere. Instead of losing their benefits because they are unable to find work, he argued, signing up for a training program could help them obtain a new job. “It gives them opportunities for picking up a new skillset,” Thompson told me.
But Gina Plata-Nino, the deputy director for SNAP at the Food Research and Action Center, argued that there is a “lack of education as to who these individuals are.” Many veterans are ABAWDs, said Plata-Nino, and may struggle to readjust to civilian life after leaving military service. That can make it difficult for them to find employment within the three-month time limit, as can mental health challenges. She also highlighted formerly incarcerated individuals and young adults aging out of the foster care system as ABAWDs who may lack the skills and context to easily find employment.
The conception of “able-bodied” may also not be entirely accurate; for example, health issues that make it difficult to find or maintain employment, such as the lingering effects of so-called “long Covid,” may be difficult to diagnose. Plata-Nino also contended that it could be difficult for low-income Americans to find transportation to jobs, particularly in rural areas.
Thompson, who represents a very rural Pennsylvania district, maintained that transportation would not be a problem. “I would argue that of the less than two million people we’re talking about that are able-bodied, they’re going to have some form of transportation that’s available to them,” Thompson said. “Somebody can always come up with a scenario of ‘What if.’ Quite frankly, that’s why we give exemptions to the states, and the states can use those exemptions.”
Republicans have also pressed for work requirements to be added to Medicaid, but evidence demonstrates that conditioning the program on work has detrimental effects for its participants. In 2018, the Trump administration began approving state work requirements for Medicaid in several states, although many of these policies were blocked in the courts. Arkansas implemented a work requirement program for 10 months, between June 2018 and March 2019. By the time a federal judge halted the program, 18,000 adults had lost their Medicaid coverage. Moreover, a Harvard study found that 50 percent of adults who lost their coverage reported serious problems in paying off their debt, 56 percent delayed care due to cost, and 64 percent delayed taking medications because of cost.
Arkansas’s brief implementation of work requirements for Medicaid demonstrates that “you just end up hurting a lot of the people who actually are eligible for the program,” as recipients “can’t manage the administrative processes that are put in place to document these things.” The Harvard study found that when the program was implemented, 70 percent of Arkansans weren’t sure whether the policy was in effect, and 35 percent who were enrolled in it hadn’t heard about the policy at all. Those surveyed also said that they found it hard to report the work they had accomplished; meanwhile, 95 percent of those interviewed met the state’s qualifications to receive aid or should have received exemptions.
The Congressional Budget Office found that around 1.5 million people would lose federal funding for their Medicaid coverage if the Republican plan to add work requirements was enacted, with around 600,000 people becoming uninsured.
Republicans often argue that they merely seek to expand upon the reforms of bipartisan legislation in 1996 that completely revamped the welfare system, shepherded under the aegis of President Bill Clinton. Indeed, then-Senator Joe Biden supported the measure, which implemented some of the work requirements for childless adults to receive food stamps. “I think everyone here believes that work should be the premise of our welfare system,” Biden said in 1996.
Some Democrats fear that the White House will cave on work requirements. In a letter to Biden last week, members of the Progressive Caucus urged Biden to invoke the Fourteenth Amendment to avert default—a constitutionally dubious maneuver—rather than “acceding to bad-faith Republican” demands, including work requirements. The Congressional Black Caucus said in a statement that it had “no intention of allowing families to go hungry to appease Republicans,” arguing that cutting social safety net programs would further exacerbate racial disparities. (Congress is also eyeing cuts to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which primarily serves single mothers, but far fewer people participate in it than in SNAP, and thus lawmakers might deem it more politically acceptable to futz with that program.)
“I think all of us are just afraid of what’s going to happen. I know that for my district’s working-class residents, folks do not want to see us using the debt ceiling as some sort of mechanism to make it even harder for them to live their lives,” said Representative Rashida Tlaib.
Any debt ceiling deal must garner support in the Democratic-controlled Senate and will likely require votes from House Democrats as well. Senate Democrats have also pushed back against the idea of work requirements. As the country hurtles closer to default, however, the idea of adding work requirements in exchange for not torpedoing the economy may seem more palatable.
“I think helping people in a reasonable way, and even paying for and providing resource funding to help people achieve the dignity of work, help people to find, not just nutrition security, which I’m committed to, but [also] financial security, is a righteous thing to do,” Thompson said.
But Herd, citing the evidence that shows the detrimental effects of work requirements, maintained that the political context was not about improving access to work but impairing access to social safety net programs. “This is not actually about incentivizing labor force participation. This is about adding additional administrative burdens to SNAP to undermine the actual goals of the program, which are to ensure families and individuals in the U.S. have enough to eat,” Herd argued.