With work requirements for safety net programs emerging as a central issue in the debt ceiling negotiations, President Joe Biden’s past support of such mandates is a point of optimism for Republicans and of concern for his fellow Democrats.
Biden met with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and other top congressional leaders on Tuesday in hopes of making progress on addressing the borrowing cap and averting global economic catastrophe. Negotiators have identified some areas of potential compromise, including revising the permitting process, rescinding unspent Covid-19 relief funds and possibly cutting spending.
But work requirements have become a line in the sand, with McCarthy saying Tuesday that it must be part of the deal and House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries telling colleagues he won’t accept new work requirements in government benefits programs.
More on the debt ceiling
Biden on Sunday opened the door to including work requirements in the package, saying he was waiting to hear Republicans’ exact proposals. He and the White House then walked back the comment somewhat, saying he would not support mandates that would take away people’s health care under Medicaid or put older adults at risk of losing food stamps and going hungry.
In remarks about the debt ceiling Wednesday, Biden said it’s possible there could be a few work requirement provisions in the deal but “not anything of any consequence.”
“I’m not going to accept any work requirements that go much beyond what is already … I voted years ago for the work requirements that exist,” he said.
Biden’s past support
Biden was one of 78 senators from both parties who voted for the 1996 welfare reform package that then-President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, signed into law.
The law eliminated the nation’s main welfare program and replaced it with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, known as TANF, which requires states to ensure that a certain share of those receiving cash aid participate in work-related activities.
The mandate in TANF applies to a broader set of recipients, and only certain activities satisfy it. States can lower their required workforce participation rate by reducing their number of cases.
About 540,000 families who received cash assistance from TANF were subject to the work requirements in 2021, according to LaDonna Pavetti, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The families included about 975,000 children.
The welfare reform law also implemented a time limit for certain non-working adults in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the formal name for food stamps.
Able-bodied adults without dependents who are between ages 18 to 49 can only receive food stamps for three months out of every three years unless they work or participate in other activities at least 20 hours a week.
Supporters of work requirements – both then and now – feel that such mandates are needed to break the cycle of dependence on the government.
“Assistance programs are supposed to be temporary, not permanent. A hand up, not a hand out. A bridge to independence, not a barrier,” McCarthy said in a speech at the New York Stock Exchange last month.
But in 1996, there was less research and evidence on the lack of effectiveness of work requirements, said Elizabeth Lower-Basch, the deputy executive director of policy at the Center for Law and Social Policy, an anti-poverty group. She called it “a different era.”
There was a genuine belief at the time that reform would be better for families, Pavetti said.
“There is a narrative that is prevalent that work is a pathway to better jobs,” she said. “What gets missed now is that we’ve learned that work requirements aren’t what gets you there.”
What House Republicans want
Little is known about the negotiations over work requirements that are under way. But the debt ceiling bill that House Republicans passed last month spelled out what they want to change.
The package would broaden the number of non-working adults receiving food stamps who are subject to the time limit, raising the upper age limit to 55 from 49.
The Congressional Budget Office said that 275,000 people, on average, would lose benefits each month because they fail to meet the requirement and are not otherwise exempt. Another 19,000 people would receive smaller benefits because of the new income they earn.
The GOP bill would also introduce a federal work requirement to Medicaid, requiring certain adult recipients to work, perform community service or participate in an employment program for at least 80 hours a month. It would apply to those ages 19 to 55, but not those who are pregnant, parents of dependent children, physically or mentally unfit for employment or enrolled in education or in substance abuse programs, among others.
This largely targets low-income adults who qualify under Medicaid expansion, an Affordable Care Act provision.
The provision would result in about 1.5 million adults, on average, losing federal funding for their Medicaid coverage, according to the CBO. But states would pick up the full tab for about 900,000 of them, leaving around 600,000 uninsured.
And the package would make changes to the work requirements in the TANF program, effectively raising the share of parents who must participate in work activities, according to Pavetti.
The proposal could prompt states to stop providing cash assistance to families and instead use TANF funds for child care, refundable tax credits or other programs that support children, Lower-Basch said.
This story has been updated with additional information.