Decades of research show that work requirements do not move people off assistance and into self-sufficiency; instead they harm health, keep eligible people from obtaining needed assistance, and drive people and families already struggling to make ends meet deeper into poverty.
Policymakers are considering increasing the use of work requirements in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and adding them to the Medicaid program. Those who support work requirements argue that they will increase labor force participation and bring people out of poverty.
Instead, research shows that work requirements reduce access to healthcare and health-promoting programs, keep eligible people from acquiring assistance, and drive people deeper into poverty.
Here is what the research shows about work requirements:
Work Requirements Reduce Access to Benefits that Promote Health and Wellbeing
Social safety net programs like SNAP, Medicaid, and guaranteed income assistance programs are beneficial to people with low incomes. Work requirements make it harder to join and to maintain coverage from assistance programs, while discouraging countless others from even trying to obtain assistance. The result is an exacerbation of physical, mental, and behavioral health problems that make it more difficult, not easier, to obtain or retain employment that is a condition of maintaining assistance.
Work Requirements Don’t Increase Labor Force Participation
A review of the literature by the Congressional Budget Office across programs with work requirements shows that even when the requirements increase employment, they did so only in the short term and some show no increase at all. Furthermore, most people in programs like TANF and SNAP who can work already do so, but often the work comes with low wages and no benefits, therefore necessitating the help of these programs.
Red Tape Discourages Participation and Increases Costs
The administrative burdens of monitoring and enforcing work requirements are difficult on enrollees and program administrators alike. As a result, work requirements often raise the costs of administering assistance programs instead of lowering them. While work requirements may sometimes save taxpayers money, it is often achieved through denying benefits to otherwise eligible recipients, further embedding them into a lifetime of poverty, resulting in other societal costs.
Barriers to Employment not Addressed by Work Requirements
Many participants in social safety net programs who do not work face significant barriers to employment. Some have a health limitation or live with someone who does; some do not have a high school degree; while others lack internet access or transportation to get to work.
Work requirements also most adversely affect populations of color, who face the greatest barriers to employment.
Policies for Consideration
Work requirements do not lift people out of poverty, yet there is evidence that supports alternative programs and strategies to help people get the assistance—whether health or financial or otherwise—that they need. Here are some ideas for the U.S. federal government to consider: employment and training programs, cash assistance, affordable childcare and increased minimum wage.