Work requirements don’t work

By: Umailla Fatima, Health Policy Analyst, UnidosUS

In America, everyone who works hard should be able to feed their families and bring a sick child to see a doctor, even if their job pays low wages and fails to provide health insurance coverage. Basic supports for families help fulfill that promise for millions of struggling people, who are disproportionately from communities of color like the Latino community we represent.

Some politicians now want to break that promise. A bill that passed the House would take away low-income working families’ food, health care, and cash assistance unless people complete mountains of paperwork every month.

While politicians call their plan “work requirements,” a more accurate description is “paperwork requirements.” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy makes big claims for these measures, but history shows that paperwork requirements do not increase the number of people who go to work. Instead, these relentless monthly paperwork requirements mean that families who qualify for programs may get taken off them anyway merely for failing to fill out a form.

The nation’s basic anti-hunger program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) already impose “work requirements” on recipients. Lessons learned from these programs make clear that paperwork requirements are ineffective in connecting people to jobs and do not lead to more employment or increased wages. The Office of Management and Budget found in 2021 that administrative burdens, like paperwork requirements, ironically, fall disproportionately on people who most qualify for help and cut off support when people need it the most.

As hard experience demonstrates, forcing new paperwork and red tape on Medicaid recipients is also a terrible idea. In 2018, for example, Arkansas became the first state to impose work reporting requirements on people who use Medicaid for their health care. As a result, nearly 20,000 people were thrown off Medicaid coverage, although a vast majority were either working or had health problems that were exempted from the requirement. They were terminated for one reason: red tape.

Rather than increasing work, paperwork rules just make it more difficult for struggling families to put food on the table, go to the doctor, and pay rent while burdening families and states. Nearly 90% of SNAP benefits go to households with older adults, children, or people with disabilities—yet it’s difficult to find jobs that pay well enough and cover transportation, childcare, a work wardrobe, and other costs or that allow a worker to take time off if they or their child get sick.

Similarly, a majority of Medicaid health care coverage recipients are older, disabled, sick or very low-income—making finding good jobs a steep challenge. For each of these programs, the qualifying income threshold is exceedingly low–for example, a family of three can only earn only up to $29,940 a year to qualify for SNAP.

CalFresh/SNAP is Being Cut: What You Can Do in California, Illinois, and TexasPaperwork proposals rest on an empirically disproven assumption that poor people will only work if they are forced to do so. But millions of lower-income people and families work low-wage jobs that offer unpredictable hours, do not receive enough paid hours of work, or work for employers who refuse to provide them with proof of employment or hours. Such requirements merely mean that eligible families can lose benefits even if they are working due to hardships documenting enough hours, challenges navigating verification systems, or a failure to apply the right exemptions.

These punitive policies are also rooted in a longstanding history of racially motivated arguments against federal benefits while suggesting, from an elite perch in our economic and political life, that the most vulnerable among us are “undeserving.” Instead, given our nation’s history of racism and discrimination, people of color and lower-income people are far more likely to be harmed by paperwork burdens. Evidence shows that Latinos have the highest labor force participation rate of any racial or ethnic group in the United States. Yet, they are concentrated in low-wage jobs and are the least likely to have access to benefits that are traditionally associated with working, such as paid sick leave.

While supporters of the new red tape rules suggest they will only apply to “those without dependents,” in reality, paperwork requirements would harm children and families. In addition to the one million older people at risk of losing critical SNAP benefits, as many as four million children could go hungry under the House’s proposed expansion of work requirements to parents and caregivers of children.

And families are being targeted. Importantly, House Republicans’ bill does not include uncompensated childcare and caregiving as “work,” discriminating against parents and caregivers who stay home with children or home-school their children. And expanding SNAP paperwork reporting requirements to adults aged 50 to 55, as has been proposed, would take away essential food assistance for grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other caregivers who care for children without legal custody.

Rather than improving the quality of work to meet the needs of real people, House leadership is risking our country’s full faith and credit to impose policies that will worsen hunger, create risks to health, and increase homelessness. Millions of low-income households, people of color, and their families rely on basic supports to access health care, feed themselves, afford childcare, and survive financial and health insecurity. Cuts to these programs, or additional burdensome, punitive requirements, will do nothing to increase employment. But they will make people sicker, hungrier, and poorer.

You might also be interested in:

On March 1, 2023, millions of people who were relying on support from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to feed their families saw their SNAP benefits drop with the […]