Spotlight Exclusives

Hamilton Project Paper Finds Work Requirements Would Punish Working Recipients

Spotlight Staff Spotlight Staff, posted on

A new paper from the Hamilton Project finds that the majority of SNAP and Medicaid recipients who would be subject to new work requirements are already part of the labor force – but would periodically struggle to comply with a 20-hours-per-week threshold because of the volatile or seasonal nature of their jobs.

The paper – Work Requirements and Safety Net Programswas the topic of an event held Monday at the Brookings Institution, sponsored by the Hamilton Project and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The paper was co-authored by Hamilton Project director Jay Shambaugh, Hamilton Project fellow Lauren Bauer, and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, the Margaret Walker Alexander Professor and director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

Former White House Council of Economic Advisers chairman Jason Furman framed the discussion with some general points about the relationship between public aid programs and the labor force.

  • In general, “public programs do not play a particularly important role in America’s work problem,” Furman said. “I would not make the solution to the work problem entirely about public programs.”
  • Supportive safety net programs, however, can promote work, though not by threatening to cut benefits. “If you want to have somebody work, make sure that when they’re a child, they have adequate healthcare, adequate nutrition, adequate housing.”
  • Public programs can and should be modified and strengthened to promote work, but a more successful approach would be to integrate strategies into them that are supportive of work, such as paid leave and expanded childcare.

In a panel discussion, participants largely agreed that work requirements are not the best strategy to raise labor force participation among SNAP and Medicaid recipients and could result in a loss of coverage and/or benefits for people who are working, but in low-wage, unpredictable jobs.

“A lot of people who will be facing work requirements . . . are already working and in fact they are doing so rather substantially,” said Schanzenbach, adding that about 25% of SNAP and Medicaid recipients currently working would be sanctioned by work requirements, “not because of their own lack of effort, but through volatility.”

Sharon Parrott, senior fellow and senior counselor at CBPP, said another flaw in current work requirements is the narrow grounds for exemption, which often don’t include people with serious illnesses but who are not on disability, those caring for family members, or those experiencing domestic violence.

Aid recipients also often aren’t equipped to deal with the reporting and paperwork complexities required to petition for an exemption, Parrott said. “The reality is that these programs do a very poor job of exempting, because it’s really complicated.”

The barriers for compliance in low-income and often rural communities have been underscored in the early months of the adoption of work requirements in Arkansas, said Marquita Little Numan, health policy director at Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.

Of the more than 8,000 Medicaid recipients who have lost coverage in the past two months in Arkansas, Numan said the people “we most predicted would be negatively impacted have very much been the case – the homeless, people with mental health issues, people caught up in the administrative barriers.” She said a particular problem in Arkansas has been the requirement for Medicaid recipients to file work requirement paperwork through an online portal, an interface Numan said often has not worked and which is not readily available to many recipients who lack Internet access.

Cato Institute senior fellow Michael Tanner was less critical of work requirements but said he greatly preferred other strategies for increasing labor force participation, such as expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and other policies that make general economic growth more inclusive.

CBPP president Robert Greenstein said the political debate about work requirements too often is mistakenly cast as whether work is good or not. “The question is what policies are good at promoting employment and what are the downside risks,” he said.

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