The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The facts about work requirements are being ignored. Here’s why.

(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Tuesday is tax day, and although this post isn’t directly about taxes, consider the following. Although most wealthy people pay the Internal Revenue Service what they owe, some will evade taxes this year. The most recent estimate of the tax gap — the difference between what’s owed and what’s collected — comes to more than $400 billion. Because the wealthy face higher tax bills, they have a larger incentive to avoid (legal) and evade (not legal) taxes.

Therefore, it is hereby decreed that we are going to confiscate 10 percent of the pretax income of the richest households — just skim it right off the top. Maybe, if they can prove they’ve paid what they owed, we’ll give it back.

Of course, we’ll do nothing of the sort, nor should we. But here’s the analogous thing that the Trump administration and its congressional allies are trying to do: take nutritional and medical supports away from poor people because some of them allegedly don’t work hard enough. Maybe, if they can fill out a mass of paperwork, we’ll let them keep their benefits. But if they or their caseworkers don’t get the forms in, well, too bad.

Research shows that such work requirements are no more justified than the confiscation scheme noted above. Poor able-bodied adults already work, although they’re often less consistently connected to the job market than the nonpoor. But adding work requirements, as opposed to measures that support existing work efforts of the poor, is likely to hurt their present living standards and their kids’ future mobility. Programs such as nutritional, health and housing support often make it easier for a low-income person to be able to hold a job, and children who grow up in families that receive these benefits tend to have better adult life outcomes than comparable kids who don’t receive the supports.

Some facts of the case:

— Because many poor households use SNAP (food stamps) to get through periods of unemployment, we need to observe the labor market activities of able-bodied adult recipients over the course of time. Recent research on this question shows that while half of SNAP recipients worked in the month they got SNAP, three-quarters worked in the year before or after that month.

— Most (60 percent) non-disabled, working-age Medicaid beneficiaries work, 80 percent live in working families, and just under two-thirds live in a family with a full-time worker.

— The minority of poor adults who don’t work, even sporadically, take care of children, and/or face steep labor market barriers, including lack of affordable child care, health problems and deep skill deficits.

— In this remarkable testimony, the Urban Institute’s Heather Hahn cites numerous studies showing how “Medicaid and SNAP help workers maintain health and well-being — for themselves and their children — when the jobs they can find don’t include health insurance and related benefits or pay enough to support themselves and their families.”

— While conservatives still cite the mid-1990s welfare reform as an example of work requirements that were successful, Hahn’s testimony reveals how misguided this emphasis has become. As she describes it, TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) work requirements have morphed into a counterproductive, highly complex “bean counting” exercise that blocks, rather than enhances, the pursuit of self-sufficiency.

If you’ve ever worked with the poor, Hahn’s points will be glaringly obvious. The poor want to work at least as much as any other group, if not more so, because you can’t survive, much less raise kids, on $1.40 per meal (SNAP), housing or health subsidies, and TANF benefits that reach less than a quarter of poor families (down from 68 percent before welfare reform).

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)

None of this is meant to dismiss the role of “personal agency” — your responsibility to take advantage of the opportunities available to you. In fact, understanding the balance between what’s on you and what’s on society has been at the core of our arguments about poverty policy dating back to the Elizabethan Poor Laws of the 16th century.

We’re still having that same argument. But what should be unique about this debate today is that we have more and better information than we’ve ever had before about the real world impacts of work requirements. In fact, I’d strongly argue the following: The evidence that the role played by outside forces in keeping people poor — discrimination, housing segregation, vast income and wealth inequalities, lack of decent educational and job opportunities, the impact of a biased criminal justice system — is stronger than it has ever been, as is the evidence for the long-term, salutary effects of some of our anti-poverty interventions.

That’s why it is so sad that this work requirement debate is occurring in much the same fact-free zone wherein the tax debate occurred, which brings me back to the rich tax scofflaws and my confiscation analogy.

In today’s American politics, we beat up on the poor because we can. We do so because they lack the resources to buy the policies and the politicians that will further enrich, coddle and insulate the donor class. We don’t go after tax avoiders and evaders; we grant them fat new loopholes. Our dominant policy agenda implies that if you give rich people much more money they’ll work harder, but if you give poor people a little food, they’ll quit their jobs. Even in our age of elevated wealth inequality, conservatives’ agenda suggests they’re trying to solve the problem that the rich don’t have enough and the poor have too much.

We all know that’s not what’s hurting the country today, which means work requirements won’t work. The work-requirement debate does, however, provide an insight into the real threat to our nation: the triumph, for now, of a uniquely cruel and selfish ideology over the facts.

The key words there, in case you missed them, are “for now.”