The wave of states imposing strict work requirements for Medicaid recipients — and the possibility of the federal government doing the same thing for food stamps — does nothing to help workers or employment. The only thing work requirements actually do is punitively punish the poor for their circumstances.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) is currently holding up the Farm Bill — a behemoth piece of legislation that sets agricultural and food policy every five years — in hopes of Senate Republicans agreeing to his demands to impose new work requirements on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as food stamps) enrollees. His version of the bill narrowly passed the House on a two-vote margin, and the version the senate sent back to the house doesn’t include the work requirement provision.
Currently, anyone qualifying for food stamps between the ages of 18 and 59 who is not pregnant, disabled, or otherwise unable to work, has to agree to take at least part-time employment or accept a job if offered to them. Unemployed adults without children will lose their food stamps if unable to find work in 90 days under current law. House Republicans’ proposal would make the current work requirements even stricter by making food stamp recipients work at least 20 hours a week or enroll in 20 hours of workforce training each week.
Republicans are defending the new work requirements by saying they will enable SNAP enrollees to move into higher-paying jobs over time.
“[T]he farm bill proposes realistic, supportive and simplified work requirements paired with funding for states to provide guaranteed, improved and constructive options to move participants toward improved wages, higher-quality employment and independence,” House GOP staffers wrote in a memo circulated to the media.
However, the data doesn’t support that argument.
Despite what conservatives who have been historically opposed to anti-poverty programs like Medicaid since former president Lyndon Johnson proposed it in the 1960s may want us to think, most recipients of nutrition and healthcare assistance programs are already employed. If these new stricter work requirements were to go into effect, they would simply kick millions of workers and their families off of even the most basic assistance while having no real effect on employment.
A recent study from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) found in 2016, that there were nearly 15 million Medicaid recipients who already held jobs. And because of the trend of many low-wage employers setting schedules at the last minute (an estimated 17 percent of workers are subject to irregular schedules), many workers may not be able to qualify for benefits under monthly evaluations of workers to see whether or not they worked the required number of hours.
“Churn and instability of hours are outcomes of policy failures (such as the failure to provide paid family and sick leave) and employers’ power to demand that workers submit to last-minute scheduling and other unfair practices, not of some lack of motivation on the part of workers,” EPI wrote in its report.
Moreover, many food stamp recipients are already working at least one job, and employment rates among the program’s participants continue to rise despite the perception that most Americans receiving government assistance are unemployed. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) found in a 2017 study, approximately 32 percent of all SNAP households earned income in 2015 — up from just 19 percent in 1990. Among SNAP households with children, that figure is almost twice as high:
Earlier this summer, a plan Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin (R) floated to force “able-bodied” Medicaid recipients to prove either current employment, job training, or volunteer work in order to qualify for the state-sponsored healthcare program meant for low-income families and children was struck down by a federal judge.
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg remarked that Gov. Bevin’s program — Kentucky HEALTH — would have meant 95,000 Kentuckians would lose Medicaid assistance under his proposed work requirements. Boasberg also wrote that Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar committed a “glaring” oversight by failing to consider the number of people who would lose their healthcare coverage if the program went into effect.
“[Azar] never adequately considered whether Kentucky HEALTH would in fact help the state furnish medical assistance to its citizens, a central objective of Medicaid,” Boasberg wrote.
Given Boasberg’s arguments, it’s almost as if poor people not being able to get basic healthcare is an afterthought for Republicans like Gov. Bevin in their quest for new work requirements. And given the wealth of data showing that most recipients of Medicaid and food stamps are already employed, any argument Republicans may make about the values of “independence” fall apart. The only remaining explanation for why the GOP is so adamant on imposing new work requirements on people receiving meager government benefits is that they simply want working-class Americans to suffer even more.
The CBPP estimates that 30 percent of American workers are working in jobs that, even if they had full-time hours, would barely lift them above the poverty line. If Republicans truly want more Americans to get off of food stamps and Medicaid, perhaps they should take their frustration out on employers who pay workers poverty wages and don’t grant basic benefits like paid sick leave and paid family leave.