The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Work requirements would undo a game-changing Biden achievement

The left’s biggest loss in the Build Back Better deal isn’t what you think — and it could get worse

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) leaves the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 28, 2021. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Democrats seem to have a $1.75 trillion deal in place to advance big chunks of President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda. Yet, the compromises required to secure support from moderates have infuriated many on the left, including sacrificing paid family leave and Medicare drug price negotiation. Yet, maybe the biggest loss won’t receive as much attention. The bill extends the expanded Child Tax Credit (CTC), but only for one more year before Congress would need to renew it again. To paraphrase President Biden, this program is a Big Effing Deal — extending it permanently had the potential to be as consequential for children as the Social Security Act of 1935 was for seniors.

Economists estimate that the expanded CTC, if made permanent, could lift more than 4 million children out of poverty — a reduction of 40 percent.

The key to this reduction is enabling even families with no earnings to qualify for the full credit.

But Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), whose opposition torpedoed the paid leave program, also worries that the CTC — as well as the broader Build Back Better agenda — would produce what he calls an “entitlement society.” In early September, Manchin told CNN, “if we’re going to help the children … the people should make some effort.” One solution? Work requirements.

Manchin and other proponents of work and training requirements argue that they encourage poor families to develop “better skill sets.” Pointing to the supposed success of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, the conservative American Enterprise Institute claims that “work requirements for parents receiving public aid lead to better outcomes for their children” including “higher graduation rates, better access to health care, and better economic mobility when they grow up.”

But there is little evidence — contemporary or historical — to support such rosy claims. This is because work requirements have never been about helping the poor. Rather, proponents care more about saving money, scoring political points and policing the line between those deemed deserving of public assistance and those who are not. Too often, work requirements have actually hurt the people who need help the most. That would certainly be the case with the CTC, with the damage coming at the expense of children.

Work requirements have a long history. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, social welfare reformers in the United States and elsewhere divided the poor into “deserving” and “undeserving” categories. Those who were unable to work — because of age, disability or ill-health — deserved pity and a subsidy, albeit a meager one. Reformers dubbed the “able-bodied poor,” by contrast, undeserving and often consigned them to the “work house.”

This thinking continued into the 20th century. In 1935, when Congress created the country’s largest public assistance program for families — Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), as part of the Social Security Act — lawmakers excluded families headed by a man because of the assumption that men could and should work. These households were forced to turn to local general assistance programs, which provided even less aid than ADC. This exclusion remained until the early 1960s, when Congress passed a law allowing, but not requiring, states to include families with a male head of household in the federal welfare program.

These gendered expectations meant that the original ADC did not include formal work requirements for women, although local officials charged with administering the program often denied assistance on the grounds that certain mothers — usually Black mothers — should be working.

This changed in the late 1960s in the context of what was often referred to as a “welfare crisis.” Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) — Congress changed the name in 1962 after lawmakers expanded the program to include two-parent families — had exploded in terms of both size and cost. Between 1960 and 1974, the rolls swelled from 3.1 million to almost 11 million recipients.

Equally important, the demographics of the program’s recipients changed. By 1967, the AFDC caseload, which had once been 86 percent White, had become 46 percent non-White — thanks to other forms of federal assistance in the preceding decades that were only available to White families, such as affordable, government-backed mortgages, that helped lift many into the middle class. Unlike AFDC, however, these kinds of government assistance were often deliberately hidden from view. As a consequence, many White Americans had come to see welfare as nothing more than a handout for Black single mothers.

Work requirements for poor mothers — even the mothers of very young children — emerged as one solution to this supposed “crisis.” In 1967, Congress passed a new law requiring poor mothers to either find a job or participate in work training programs or risk losing their welfare eligibility. Then, as now, supporters of the new Work Incentives Program, or WIN, argued that it would give the welfare poor a “sense of dignity, self-worth, and confidence” that flowed from “being recognized as a wage-earning member of society.” Rep. Wilbur Mills (D-Ark.), the longtime chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, claimed in 1967 that WIN would allow “people now on public assistance to become self-sustaining.”

This lofty rhetoric about helping the poor concealed the true motives driving policymakers like Mills. Their real goal was to signal to taxpayers that the government was acting as a responsible steward of their money by ensuring that only the most “deserving” poor received assistance. As Sen. Russell Long (D-La.) put it, the poor had an obligation to “do something” to earn “the taxpayers’ support.”

The rising popularity of work requirements, therefore, had little to do with any evidence of effectiveness in reducing poverty or the welfare rolls. Indeed, welfare caseloads continued to increase in the 1970s and 1980s, even as the real value of AFDC payments fell. The Child Poverty rate, which had been 16.6 percent in 1967, rose to a high of 22.7 percent in 1993. Instead, work requirements were simply a product of an increasingly conservative political climate which viewed poor people, especially the Black poor, as undeserving chiselers.

Anti-welfare and pro-work rhetoric grew even more powerful in the 1980s and 1990s. To counter their party’s reputation for favoring big government and high taxes, many centrist Democrats looked to policies designed to “make work pay.” Two key policy legacies of the 1990s — the 1996 welfare reform bill and the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit — had at their core a commitment to work over welfare.

But advocates of work requirements ignored — and still ignore — both the well-being of the most vulnerable Americans and the valuable work done inside the home. This devaluation of care work falls particularly hard on women. The experience of the pandemic has made it clear that women still carry the overwhelming burden of domestic labor. According to a March 2021 study, 865,000 American women — compared with only 216,000 men — had left the workforce because they could not find childcare.

The expanded child-care tax credit — if made permanent — would not only provide much needed help for American children, it would go a long way in recognizing — and valuing — the work done by both men and women in the home. As one poor woman wrote almost a half century ago, parenting is “work that is not now paid for by society.” Isn’t it time for that to happen?