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Opinion Here’s a bipartisan fix for welfare work requirements

A help-wanted sign in Deerfield, Ill., on Sept. 21. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)
4 min

Anton Korinek is a Rubenstein fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of economics at the University of Virginia.

The debate over the debt ceiling has brought one contentious issue into sharp focus: work requirements in welfare programs. Republicans want to raise them; President Biden and other Democrats mostly object. But there’s a bipartisan way out of the stalemate.

Opinions on the value of welfare work requirements vary, but there is bipartisan agreement that they can cause substantial hardship during recessions and other periods of high unemployment, when jobs can be hard to come by. This was clearly demonstrated in the aftermath of the 2007-2009 financial crisis and during the covid-19 pandemic, when bipartisan majorities were in favor of temporarily lifting many existing work requirements in welfare programs. But the House GOP’s recently passed Limit, Save, Grow Act seeks to strengthen such work requirements as a means of cutting billions of dollars’ worth of spending from the federal budget over the next decade.

Currently, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, requires 80 hours of work or training per month for able-bodied adults under 50 with no children; if recipients fail to comply, they can lose their benefits. However, states can offer a certain number of discretionary exemptions to these work requirements. To save as much as $11 billion over the next decade, as estimated by the Congressional Budget Office, House Republicans propose to raise the work requirement age to 55 and limit the use of discretionary exemptions.

Democrats are vehemently opposed to this, arguing that tying work to welfare can increase poverty and jeopardize health when benefit recipients can’t meet the requirements. Moreover, work requirements fail to account for changes in the job market, impose a significant bureaucratic burden — recipients need to document their employment status and report any changes, and authorities need to verify and audit their reports — and, according to some studies, might be ineffective at promoting stable employment.

But here’s a potential compromise: Why not tighten work requirements only at times when unemployment is low and jobs more plentiful and combine such legislation with an expansion of social benefits if unemployment rises above a certain threshold — either at the state or at the national level?

One possibility is to put tightened work requirements in place only when the unemployment rate is lower than 5 percent. This would increase labor supply and relieve inflationary pressures during periods such as our current one, when labor markets are tight and employers are looking for workers. This proposal wouldn’t affect those who are vulnerable; exemptions from work requirements would continue to include those caring for dependent children or sick relatives, pregnant people and individuals in treatment for substance abuse, among others.

Conversely, an unemployment threshold of 7.5 percent — a level reached only 15 percent of the time in the post-World War II period — could be the trigger for waiving existing work requirements and expanding social benefits such as unemployment and other welfare payments. This would protect individuals and help them cover their economic needs during times when finding work might be particularly challenging. Importantly, it would also serve as a safeguard during potential future periods of increased unemployment because of automation or other technological disruption — a much-discussed specter these days.

In the current political climate, a proposal of this sort could provide a path forward. Republicans could claim a win by strengthening some work requirements, while Democrats could herald the inclusion of provisions that automatically lift these requirements and expand benefits during recessions. Not only would this serve as a step toward resolving the current debate over the debt ceiling, but it would also establish an important automatic stabilizer for future economic downturns.

By embracing a balanced and adaptable approach to work requirements in welfare, we can strive to ensure that our welfare system promotes the Republican goal of self-sufficiency when economic conditions permit, without causing undue hardship during economically challenging times, a top Democratic concern. In an era of potential future disruptions and economic uncertainty, it’s the sort of bipartisan approach we need more than ever.