Jamelle Bouie: Republicans have a twisted view of the safety net

Work requirements for federal assistance programs do not, well, work.

“Stable employment among recipients subject to work requirements proved the exception, not the norm,” according to a 2016 review of the evidence on work requirements for safety-net programs by the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “The large majority of individuals subject to work requirements remained poor, and some became poorer.”

In 2018, Arkansas imposed a work requirement on Medicaid beneficiaries on the theory that it would increase labor force participation in the state. It didn’t. Instead, nearly 17,000 low-income Arkansans lost their health insurance, according to a special report in the New England Journal of Medicine. And in a 2021 study of state work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, researchers at the Urban Institute found “no effect” on employment for recipients. The main result, once again, was to reduce enrollment.

Work requirements don’t work, but Republicans still want them, so much so that they threatened to crash the global economy to get them. Why? The obvious answer is that work requirements are an effective way to cut programs without actually cutting them. With a little extra paperwork and another layer of bureaucracy, states can keep thousands of people who qualify from getting access to benefits.

Does any of this save money? Not really. It cost states tens of millions of dollars to institute work requirements. The administration of Arkansas’ work program for Medicaid, for example, cost close to $26 million. After the Iowa Legislature passed its bill to impose work requirements on SNAP recipients, the nonpartisan Iowa Legislative Services Agency put the cost of administering the new rules at $17 million over the next three years — way more than the state would have spent on SNAP during that period. Beyond the cost to government, there’s also the fact that reducing benefits harms the overall economy; what people don’t have, they can’t spend.

For Republican supporters of work requirements, however, the state of the real economy is less important than that of the moral economy, which is to say, the conservative vision of the proper order for the distribution of rights and privileges in society. The essential problem with assistance programs, from this point of view, is that they exist — that they let people live without needing to work.

“In this family, we may have a child that is able-bodied, not married, no kids, but he’s sitting on the couch collecting welfare,” Kevin McCarthy, the speaker of the House, said in a Fox News interview in which he highlighted the new work requirements he won in his deal with President Joe Biden to raise the debt ceiling. “We’re going to put work requirements on that individual, so he’s going to get a job.”

Now, McCarthy obviously misspoke when he said “child”; he clearly meant an adult. (Although, here, it is hard not to think of Republican opposition to free school lunch and support for loosening child labor laws.) But the rhetorical error is less important than what his image of a welfare recipient says about his view of the role of government. The nonworker, in his imagination, is simply a layabout who would work if he didn’t have the dole.

In this worldview, if the government has a part to play, it is to force these nonworkers into the labor market even if the result is a precarious life of low wages and sporadic employment. It does not matter that many Americans who don’t work can’t work, whether for health reasons or because of familial obligations. What does matter is that the government doesn’t reward anyone for forgoing wage labor. Yes, this will lead to more poverty and greater deprivation. But those outcomes are less important than the maintenance of a particular moral order in which survival — to say nothing of comfort — is earned in the market. Those who can’t swim, or at least float, will sink.

There are other moral economies — other ways for us to imagine the proper order of the distribution of things in our society. If, for example, the New Deal was a breakthrough in American political life, it was because it marked the institutionalization of economic rights — of the idea that membership in the political community brought a degree of freedom from the market as well as greater democratic rights within it.

Most Democrats are still committed to preserving the major planks of the American social safety net; even Biden’s deal with McCarthy to add work requirements to SNAP is offset by changes that will expand food assistance to veterans, the homeless and former foster children. But with a few notable exceptions, they have yet to recover this language of economic rights — of a more egalitarian moral economy — that marked an earlier moment in the history of the Democratic Party, before Ronald Reagan launched his revolution and Bill Clinton consolidated it.

The Republican fight to impose work requirements on assistance programs has not been met with an alternative vision for how we might structure our safety net and our society alongside it.

Then again, that might be asking too much of the Democrats, who are a big tent party that must manage and maneuver among a broad coalition of voters and interests. And if there was a moment when it stood for a different order of society, for a different moral economy, it was when labor could touch the steering wheel.

Jamelle Bouie | The New York Times