Work requirements don’t work. Just look what they did to TANF.

February 26th, 2018 at 6:24 pm

This WaPo piece I posted this AM taps some new evidence by my CBPP colleagues (Mitchell, Pavetti, Huang). I found the numbers highly germane to the work-requirement thrust from conservatives attacking safety-net programs. The CBBP results track poor parents sanctioned off of the TANF program in Kansas and finds what I’ve always, always, always maintained in this debate, since I started out my adult life as a social worker in East Harlem, NYC: Able-bodied, poor people work.

No question, they’re less solidly attached to the job market than the non-poor, but the idea that they’re just chillin’ at home on SNAP and Medicaid never made any sense, and the data don’t come close to supporting either that myth or the notion that kicking them off the rolls will help. That is, if by “help,” we mean improve their own and their kids’ living standards and life chances. If instead, we mean: “will help offset the cost of the tax cuts”…well, that’s different.

I mentioned in the piece: “…the combination of work requirements in the 1996 welfare reform, the expansion of the earned income credit, additional child-care funding and the uniquely tight latter-90s labor market led to increases in the employment rates of mother-only families. But as the job market weakened, those employment gains faded, even as the work requirements remained in place. Meanwhile, the loss of income supports exacerbated not just poverty but deep poverty (families with income below half the poverty threshold, about $10,000 for a single parent with two children).”

Here’s the evidence: employment rates of high-school or less (think: relatively low earners) never-married mothers climbed sharply in the 1990s on the back of the factors just noted, until they were comparable to those of single women without kids (who wouldn’t be eligible for TANF and thus not responsive to the work requirements). But their employment rates then fell in the 2001 recession, and after that they track the rates for single women, no kids. Given that the TANF work requirements apply only to the unmarried moms, this pattern suggests that labor market opportunities, not punitive policies, are driving employment rates.

Meanwhile, it’s straightforward to see that TANF (which used to be AFDC) has become far less responsive to helping those in need (see figure below).

We must therefore tirelessly resist that same destructive outcome for all the other safety net programs that conservatives are currently going after, with “work requirements” as their stalking horse.

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