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Trump executive order strengthens work requirements for neediest Americans

President Trump says he intends to “go into welfare reform” after overhauling the tax code and the health-care system. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Trump on Tuesday signed an executive order directing federal agencies to strengthen existing work requirements and introduce new ones for low-income Americans receiving Medicaid, food stamps, public housing benefits and welfare as part of a broad overhaul of government assistance programs.

The order directs federal agencies to review all policies related to current work requirements as well as exemptions and waivers and report back to the White House with recommendations within 90 days.

“Welfare reform is necessary to prosperity and independence,” said Andrew Bremberg, assistant to the president and director of Trump’s domestic policy council.

Bremberg highlighted the success of the 1996 welfare changes, signed by President Bill Clinton, that required those receiving cash assistance to work, or look for work.

The Trump administration is calling Medicaid work requirements a positive "incentive" for beneficiaries, but critics say they're a harmful double standard. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Rogelio V. Solis/The Washington Post)

He said “common-sense reforms” are needed to help Americans “reclaim their independence” and to ensure that tax dollars are being spent on the truly needy.

The federal government spent more than $700 billion on low-income assistance in 2017.

The executive order is the strongest statement Trump has made about the country’s social safety net program since his February budget proposal to slash billions of dollars in food stamps, health insurance and federal housing subsidies.

Trump indicated at the time that he would push legislation to institute broad work requirements for families receiving housing vouchers, expanding on moves by some states to require recipients of Medicaid and food stamps to work.

Trump wants more people who receive housing subsidies to work

Poverty advocates criticized the moves. “For those who are able to work, they should work. But there shouldn’t be barriers for those who are in need when they can’t work,” said Derrick Johnson, president and chief executive of the NAACP.

Valerie Wilson, director of the Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy at the Economic Policy Institute, said a majority of those on assistance were already working — but that wages in many jobs remained too low for people to get by.

“Work requirements are inconsistent with the realities of poverty in America and are unlikely to provide any resolution,” she said. “The truth is that a majority of poor people who can work, do work — more than 60 percent.”

Wilson said low-wage workers are working more hours now that they did nearly 40 years ago.

“The problem is that their jobs don’t pay enough,” she said. “People who are on public assistance and don’t work are not choosing between a six-figure salary or staying at home. Taking a low-paying job gets no one closer to economic stability.”

Trump to poor Americans: Get to work or lose your benefits

Conservatives praised the executive order, calling it “Welfare Reform 2.0.” While congressional action is needed to institute tougher work requirements, which Republicans are trying to accomplish for food stamp recipients through the farm bill, the executive branch could unilaterally issue rules and regulations that promote work.

“It’s a great start towards another wave of reform,” said Josh Archambault, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Government Accountability, a free-market think tank based in Naples, Fla. “Work requirements have proven to be an effective tool to help people make it out of poverty. You can’t be on food stamps and be out of poverty by definition if you have no other earned income.”

Archambault said the White House could standardize work requirements and eligibility rules across programs.

Senior White House officials during a briefing Tuesday evening disagreed with the premise that many of those receiving government assistance already work. They said states with welfare policies that have enacted “common-sense” work requirements, such as Kansas and Maine, have helped drive the poorest Americans into jobs.

 In Kansas, work requirements for adults without children resulted in caseloads dropping by 75 percent — and the average amount of time spent on welfare was cut in half, the White House said. The administration said studies after changes in Maine and Kansas showed that individuals who returned to work after leaving safety-net programs saw their incomes more than double, on average.