The media has given outsized attention to minor modifications to work requirements for welfare recipients in the debt ceiling deal between President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Such modifications will have a relatively modest impact despite the fact that Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike overwhelmingly support work requirements. That’s why reform-minded politicians should seize the opportunity to put forward more significant improvements this summer in the upcoming Farm Bill.
The Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 (the official name for the debt ceiling law) was a bad deal for the American people, appearing to take significant actions while in fact doing very little to address underlying problems. Republicans effectively surrendered to Biden’s demand that the changes to work requirements in the deal would be “not anything of any consequence.”
With respect to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, now the program of last resort for families with children, Republican negotiators made two significant blunders.
First, they demonstrated a lack of understanding that the program succeeds primarily when parents choose never to enter it in the first place. It is considered a last resort and is effective mainly because it makes welfare less attractive than work, so fewer families opt to participate.
However, the Republican negotiators championed new provisions establishing work metrics for families leaving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and a pilot program that would actually make it more like other failed federal job-training programs.
This will encourage states to bring marginally needy families into the program (for example, those who may have lost a job recently and are likely to replace it with a new one relatively soon) simply to boost their apparent success rate in promoting work. It will also distract from their efforts to help those families who are truly in the greatest need of temporary assistance to chart a path toward self-sufficiency.
Second, a provision intended to prevent state governments from gaming the existing work requirements via what is called the “small checks scheme” unintentionally codified the scheme, so long as these checks are paid using funds from the existing federal block grant.
Here’s the issue: A state that falls short of the required work participation rate among its program recipients is now clearly authorized to bring already-working families onto the rolls by paying any benefit whatsoever—no matter how tiny—just to get them in the program to raise the state’s calculated work participation rate. A state can do this without requiring additional work from its existing recipients.
To the Republican negotiators’ credit, the law makes one small improvement to the program, bringing forward from 2005 to 2015 the base year for a calculation that incentivizes states to reduce their caseload. However, the net budgetary impact of all of these provisions taken together is negligible.
With respect to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, the official name for food stamps, the negotiations centered around which able-bodied adults without dependents would be exempted from work requirements.
They raised, from 50 to 55 years, the age at which these adults are automatically exempt. They also agreed to exempt from the work requirements all veterans, adult former foster children under age 25, and the homeless. They lowered, from 12% to 8%, the share of the remaining cases of able-bodied adults without dependents that states can exempt from the work requirement at their discretion. Finally, they ended a questionable practice that allowed states to bank unused discretionary exemptions indefinitely for later use.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that these changes will add 78,000 individuals to the food stamp rolls at a cost of $2.1 billion over 10 years. Some Republicans argue that this estimate double-counts individuals in the newly exempt categories who were already exempt for other reasons, so the changes will instead lead to modest savings. Whichever side is correct, these much-ballyhooed changes represent less than half a percent of the total cost of the program.
Sadly, that was the goal. As House Agriculture Committee Chairman G.T. Thompson, R-Pa., has emphasized, the food stamp changes “should‘ve been a wash.”
American taxpayers rightly expect more from their representatives as well as from their fellow citizens seeking assistance. The upcoming Farm Bill will present an opportunity for the Agriculture Committee chairman, the speaker, and the president to work together to advance meaningful reform to food stamp work requirements, reflecting the values of hardworking Americans across the political spectrum.
Real work requirements require real work.
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