Work Requirements Don’t Work to Get People Out of Poverty

From The Shriver Brief:

by Dan Lessor

Programs that effectively address the significant and often multiple barriers people face in finding and sustaining employment could go a long way toward helping many people escape poverty.

But do programs that require recipients to work as a condition of receiving safety net benefits get people back to work and lift them out of poverty? That’s what House Speaker Paul Ryan and his Republican colleagues assert in their frustratingly vague and often misleading “blueprint” to address poverty. In one of the few concrete proposals outlined in his anti-poverty plan, Ryan calls for the imposition of stringent work requirements for not only recipients of cash assistance, but also for recipients of rental housing and even SNAP (food stamps) assistance.

Let’s be clear: work requirements are ineffective — even damaging — and resting our poverty-fighting efforts on a policy that imposes strict work requirements would fail to move the needle on poverty.

Research shows that work requirements have overwhelmingly failed to lead people to work and out of poverty. Work requirements imposed on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipients in the late 1990s have failed to produce any significant improvement in employment rates. In fact, over time, employment rates among individuals involved in work requirement programs were equal to — and in some cases lower than — employment rates among individuals not subjected to work requirements.

Moreover, in a two-year evaluation of work requirement programs across the country, most individuals subject to work requirements remained poor. Only two of eleven sites saw improvements in the poverty rate of individuals subject to work requirements. Worse, deep poverty (income below 50% of the federal poverty line) increased in six of the eleven sites.

This clear failure of work requirements to increase employment rates and lift people out of poverty isn’t surprising, since these programs are not designed to break down the barriers to employment people in poverty face. By and large, they don’t address obstacles such as low levels of education, lack of skills or experience, physical or mental health issues, lack of childcare and transportation, barriers imposed by criminal records, and a lack of social connections needed to find good jobs. Even those who are employed have difficulty sustaining work at low-wage jobs with unpredictable schedules for paychecks that are insufficient to put enough food on the table or provide basic shelter.

Instead, work requirements are premised on the false assumption that unemployed people living in poverty won’t work unless they’re forced to do so. Accordingly, these policies attempt to “discipline” recipients by mandating their compliance with job search or other requirements that fail to address the very real barriers people in poverty face to finding employment.

Recipients who fail to comply with work requirements lose benefits. In many cases, recipients’ failure to comply with work requirements is caused by the same barriers they faced in finding work in the first place!

Despite all of this evidence, Speaker Ryan proposes to expand the rigid work requirement system currently operating for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program to all adults receiving rental housing assistance and SNAP.

Instead of punishing people living in poverty, we should be helping them. We should invest in programs that create jobs and offer support to individuals in obtaining and sustaining employment.

Read more from The Shriver Brief