Spotlight Exclusives

Behavioral Science is Clear: Work Requirements are Doomed to Fail

Anthony Barrows, ideas42 Anthony Barrows, ideas42, posted on

Safety net programs help millions of Americans each year by providing basic needs like money, food, health care, and housing. These anti-poverty programs are crucial to the well-being of so many people in the U.S., so it’s perplexing that we’re seeing a proliferation of policy proposals to take away these important supports from people who do not meet a work requirement.

In 2018, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services began considering waivers that would allow states to take Medicaid coverage away from recipients who do not meet a work requirement—thus stripping people in need of health care. As of this writing, seven states have been granted waivers and eight additional states have waiver requests pending. And it’s not just health insurance that’s under threat – this year a proposed change to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) would make it harder for states to waive the time limit on accessing benefits for childless adults who aren’t working – opening the door to take away food supports as well.

If you’re thinking that work requirements are justified, you may believe that the threat of cutting off people’s basic needs will encourage work. If so, I have bad news for you: the evidence shows that work requirements do not encourage more work. In fact, their main effect is harming people who are already struggling by taking away fundamental needs like food and health care that they can’t otherwise access, violating core principles of alleviating poverty. Furthermore, taking away these supports may make it even harder for people to find or maintain jobs. Perhaps most basically, work requirements are a solution in search of a problem that doesn’t exist—the vast majority of eligible people are already working, and even more eligible people are motivated to work.

Even if you don’t think that work requirements are a good idea, you may be left wondering what a preferable alternative would be. The Economic Justice team at ideas42 thinks that the lens of behavioral science can help us envision more effective, evidence-based anti-poverty policies. As a non-profit applied behavioral science firm, ideas42 uses insights from economics, psychology, and other fields to better understand how humans form intentions and take actions in the real world. Our research on poverty tells us that interventions like work requirements are destined to fail because they are premised on basic errors about our fellow humans. To see why, we should first think about the behavioral effects of context.

An important lesson from behavioral science is that context matters—our decisions are not made in a vacuum, but are products of particular contexts. Thus, the structure of programs, policies, and services will have a profound impact on human choice and action—sometimes in unexpected ways. This focus on context is particularly relevant to anti-poverty programs, and in the 2015 white paper, Poverty Interrupted, we examine how living in poverty means living in the context of chronic scarcity, a condition of not having enough of life’s basic resources. This context causes our minds to focus intensely on solving urgent problems, making it harder to plan for the long term or juggle multiple tasks, among other things. Toggling from emergency to emergency also means that there’s little room for risk, and that the effects of every error are magnified. When we also consider corrosive social forces like racism and sexism, as well as the indignities our society visits on people in poverty, it becomes clear that the context of poverty has a vast array of social, emotional, and cognitive costs. Viewed through this behavioral science lens, work requirements for anti-poverty programs are misguided for three key reasons:

  1. Work requirements dramatically increase the cognitive costs of participating in a program by imposing burdensome compliance demands. As we know, people living in the context of poverty already have limited money and time. Adding an extra step like reporting on hours worked makes it more likely that eligible people will lose their benefits because of not completing the required paperwork, not because they haven’t worked or don’t need the help.
  2. Work requirements remove “slack” from the already complex lives of people living with low incomes. Many individuals that participate in public economic security and health insurance programs work in low-wage jobs with unpredictable schedules over which they have no or little control. Program rules allow no slack for the complexity of real life, and as a result clients will be forced to make impossible choices about whether to comply with the requirement or take care of other urgent needs.
  3. Work requirements promote harmful narratives among program staff and administrators that disempower participants. Work requirements push a false moral narrative: that some people experiencing poverty deserve help and others don’t; perhaps even that some people aren’t worth helping. This is a toxic message that is often internalized by both case and eligibility workers, as well as people getting these benefits. By promoting a focus on surveillance and compliance, work requirements create needless hassles, crowd out supportive engagement, and tell people that they can’t be trusted.

So, if work requirements aren’t the answer to fighting poverty, what is? First off – we should recognize that people already want to work, and don’t need to be coerced into labor market participation. Next, we should remember that good anti-poverty programs will promote work when they give families financial slack and are easy to access and use. Thus, effective pro-work programs might be built on the foundation of affordable child and elder care, since working often means not being able to care for a child or elderly relative.

After making it possible for people to actually go to work, we could also expand effective employment and training programs that meet clients where they are, focusing on ongoing support rather than spurring motivation (which is not the barrier most people face when trying to find a job). Finally, the best way to help people provide for themselves and their families through work is simply to increase take-home pay through higher minimum wages, additional income supports like an expanded EITC, and a revivified labor movement to improve workers’ collective bargaining power. No matter our next steps, though, the behavioral perspective is clear: if we want to support people in building a better life, work requirements simply won’t work.

Anthony Barrows is a managing director at ideas42.

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