The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Work requirements are catastrophic in a pandemic

It’s a reminder that we need to rethink our attitude toward public benefits and work requirements more broadly.

“SNAP/EBT Food Stamp Benefits Accepted” is displayed on a screen inside a Family Dollar Stores Inc. store in Chicago, on March 3. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)

The White House and the House of Representatives are in a standoff as they debate how to combat the novel coronavirus wreaking havoc on American society. The House wants a blanket waiver for all work requirements for SNAP benefits (food stamps), recognizing that we need to discourage sick Americans from feeling like they must go to work, while the White House is insisting on implementing strict new work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) on April 1. It’s unclear which side will win in the final deal purportedly coming Friday, or if there will be a compromise.

This is the latest chapter in the Trump’s administration’s prioritization of extending work requirements — even, now, in the face of a pandemic. Work requirements, at their most basic, take away assistance from families who do not report working a certain number of hours a week, in a preapproved activity. The underlying assumption is that people do not want to work, and therefore need to be coerced to do so.

This idea is rooted in a long history of racism. From the very beginning, racist stereotypes that black people do not want to work have fueled work requirements, and they have been used to coerce and exploit the labor of black families, and undervalue the work that all people do. Grappling with this history is necessary to develop policies that actually support people’s labor — in the home, as well as in the wage labor force.

Black people have always worked at high rates. For black women and men, slavery required full employment. For the century that followed, black women worked significantly more than white women in formal, paid employment, and their labor force participation has been higher ever since — only recently have white women caught up. Black men almost universally worked through the mid-20th century, when they faced systematic discrimination in entering a rapidly-changing industrial labor market that limited their ability to get and keep jobs. In the decades that followed, mass incarceration limited their ability to work.

And yet a pillar of white supremacy has been the ability of white political leaders to deny and discount this labor to force black families to work under terms and conditions that benefited white people.

Slavery laid the groundwork for work requirements, as slaveholders developed and perpetuated a myth of black laziness to force enslaved people to work and to justify the economic system from which they profited. Martha Washington, wife of George Washington and wealthy heiress of an estate with several hundred slaves, offered a typically myopic account of enslaved people’s labor when complaining of her enslaved seamstress, Charlotte, in a 1790 letter, calling her “indolent” and asserting that if she and other enslaved people were left to their own devices, “they will in a little time doe nothing but work for them selves [sic]”

These ideas persisted after the formal end of slavery. Following the Civil War, the Freedmen’s Bureau, established by Congress to aid former slaves and displaced people, threatened freed people with incarceration if they did not comply with exploitative labor contracts, and withheld assistance to black families to force them to work under the terms white people set. “Freedom does not mean the right to live without work at other people's expense,” the Bureau declared in 1865. “A man who can work has no right to support by government or by charity.” Because Bureau officials believed in the myth of black laziness developed by enslavers, they were especially wary of granting black families assistance that might allow them to reject work. Indeed in many localities, more white families than black families received assistance, without bureau officials forcing them to sign labor contracts against their will, as they did black families.

The New Deal incorporated this long-established practice of denying black families assistance to force them to work for low wages into the modern welfare state. At the insistence of southern congressmen, New Deal public assistance programs were administered by states. Many southern states established formal work requirements directed exclusively at black families.

In these early iterations of work requirements, aid was simply withheld from families to force them to work for low wages during periods when they were needed in farm labor. In 1943, for example, Louisiana adopted a policy of denying aid to applicants or recipients if they were needed in the cotton fields — including children as young as 7 — understanding that this would impact the black families who constituted this labor force.

In 1967, Congress established the first national work requirement in the cash assistance program for children with families, Aid to Families With Dependent Children. This first federal work requirement, like the state and local requirements that preceded it, discounted parents’ caregiving work by not counting it toward the total number of hours needed to fulfill the requirement. The result? Caregivers had to take on extra work, frequently in demeaning and low-skilled jobs, to meet the work requirement. In 1970 Robert Clark, the first African American elected to the Mississippi state legislature in over 100 years, told Congress that in his district under the policy “welfare recipients are made to serve as maids or to do day yard work in white homes to keep their checks.”

Political interest in requiring families to work grew in the years that followed, as President Ronald Reagan told stories of “welfare queens” and Lawrence Mead and other social scientists championed mandating work. Meanwhile mass incarceration was not only making it more difficult for people to find work, but putting pressure on the families left behind to juggle caregiving work with work in the wage labor force.

These radicalized debates over public assistance culminated in the 1996 welfare reform law, when President Bill Clinton signed a Republican bill imposing strict work requirements on cash assistance to families with children. Today, just 23 out of every 100 families living in poverty receive cash assistance through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), thanks in part to the enormous obstacles created by the law’s work requirements.

For families who do receive assistance, states routinely instruct them to take the first available minimum wage job to comply with the work requirement, instead of helping them enroll in education and training so they that can develop skills to allow them to advance economically.

The contemporary research is clear that work requirements do not help people find and keep jobs, but rather harm families by denying them much-needed assistance.

As the Trump administration simultaneously promotes work requirements and stokes white racial anxieties, it has seen significant setbacks, including a federal appeals court’s decision in February striking down work requirements in Medicaid. But the administration continues to push its agenda forward. If and when states implement the administration’s new rule subjecting more people to the work requirement in SNAP, some 700,000 people are expected to lose their food assistance. Risk of losing these benefits might force people to work, even if they feel sick, the exact opposite of what public health officials want people to do as they struggle to contain the coronavirus.

Which is especially shortsighted when we look at the big picture. Hundreds of years of devaluing the labor of black families has brought us to where we are today. If, as a nation, we value work, we should not be expanding work requirements. Instead, we should be implementing policies that support people’s work in the wage labor force and make it possible for working families to make ends meet, such as raising the federal minimum wage, strengthening protections for labor organizing and valuing and supporting the demands of caregiving in the home. Ultimately, these policies would value all people’s contributions, to their families, and to society as a whole.