Debt ceiling deal ‘work demands’ only deprive the poor of food

Jaqueline Benitez, who depends on California's SNAP benefits to help pay for food, shops at a supermarket in Bellflower, Calif., Monday, Feb. 13, 2023. Nearly 30 million Americans who have received extra help from the government with grocery bills during the pandemic will soon see that assistance dwindle.  (AP Photo/Allison Dinner)

A preschool teacher who receives nutritional assistance shops for groceries at a supermarket in Bellflower. (Allison Dinner/Associated Press)

The tentative agreement between President Biden and House Republicans to raise the debt ceiling leads to domestic spending cuts that could disproportionately hurt low-income and other vulnerable people. The deal to avoid defaulting on US debt targets one group, struggling workers in their 50s, for particularly harsh treatment by denying many of them food aid. It is indefensible.

The media has lazily echoed Republican characterizations of the proposed new restrictions on nutritional assistance as “work requirements.” They are not.

When most people hear “work requirement”, they assume that people in need can just meet the requirement and get some help. They assume they are like the airline seatbelt requirement, which allows anyone to fly as long as they simply buckle up.

Prior to the 1990s, work requirements in welfare programs generally worked this way. No more. President Clinton’s welfare reform ushered in a new type of “work requirement” that is effectively a way to disqualify the unemployed and underemployed from public assistance. Denying people help when they are between jobs – which is when they need it most – would seem cruel to most people. So those who were looking to do that came up with the Orwellian term “work requirement,” and it stuck.

Since 1996, assistance to childless adults up to age 50 under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP and formerly Food Stamps, is subject to termination after three months without monthly proof of at least half-time employment. The debt limitation agreement would extend this restriction to 55 years.

Social Security Administration categorized those who would be affected as “nearly approaching old age”. People with limited education and skills face increasingly bleak job prospects as they age and their ability to perform heavy manual labor declines. Many support themselves by combining several part-time jobs whose schedules tend to be very variable.

Some of their employers have no interest in reporting their hours to government agencies. And sometimes their total hours can be just short of halftime, in which case their benefits are cut. In theory, they can ask again when their hours increase, but asking for help is difficult, especially when juggling several unreliable jobs.

When the so-called work requirements were first imposed, supporters insisted that anyone who couldn’t find work could perform ‘workfare’ – unpaid community service in exchange for benefits . The law allowed it, but only a few states instituted workfare programs, and even these typically served only a small number of people in a few counties. The Clinton Administration and Congress provided additional funds to states that have agreed to offer work opportunities to those who would otherwise be denied benefits, but only a few states have agreed – and at least A did not keep his promise.

State officials from all political persuasions dislike workfare programs because they are complicated, expensive, and ineffective in helping people get paid jobs. Conservative states simply prefer to cut aid. Liberal states prefer to provide aid to those in need and let them seek employment themselves – which they usually do energetically so that they can earn money for housing, utilities and money. other needs beyond food.

Proponents of the work requirements have also insisted that states could obtain waivers for people in areas with insufficient job opportunities. But conservatives called such waivers anti-work and passed laws prohibiting state social service agencies from requesting them for even the most depressed areas.

Proponents of the restrictions also point out that the law exempts those who can establish an inability to work due to a disability. But people who are denied assistance often don’t have access to doctors to document those disabilities, especially in conservative states that have rejected the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion.

For a quarter of a century, we have denied food aid to people who are temporarily unemployed, underemployed or unable, for various reasons, to get through a host of bureaucratic hurdles. Many studies found that this did nothing to increase employment.

Disqualifying older workers is even less likely to achieve this supposed goal. And because food aid benefits are so modest, the additional restrictions are unlikely to reduce the deficit much. The agreement being considered by Congress adds minor exemptions to the requirement, but the fundamental outcome will be to deny food to unemployed older workers.

Amazingly, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his fellow Republicans have held the solvency of the United States and the global economy hostage for this reprehensible purpose – and the President has given them what they want. The result should bring nothing but shame to everyone involved.

David A. Super is a professor of law and economics at Georgetown.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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