In National Review’s new print edition I have a piece about Republican efforts to enact “Welfare Reform 2.0,” with a special focus on the House Agriculture Committee’s plan for the food-stamp program. That proposed “farm bill” would simultaneously (A) strengthen work requirements for able-bodied adults without children under six and (B) provide more funding to the states for job programs. Its core selling point is that despite the stronger requirements, no one would be forced off the program: If you want to keep your benefits, you can do so by taking a guaranteed slot in an employment program.
As we went to press, a debate erupted about various liberal proposals for the government to guarantee everyone a job. This is a mile away from the GOP’s plan in many important ways, but the two share something in common: the idea that if you can’t find a job, the government should find something for you to do, rather than letting you languish in poverty or giving you benefits while demanding nothing in return. This ensures there is no excuse for not working.
Neither proposal gets the details right. But especially if House Republicans fail to enact their desired changes — a distinct possibility, given opposition in the Senate and decent odds that the GOP will lose the House in November — this concept could one day prove key to bipartisan safety-net reforms.
As I note in my print piece, the previous round of welfare reform was a success for a simple reason: It made work far more attractive than welfare. States faced pressure to enforce work requirements and time limits for those who stayed on cash welfare, while those who worked could avail themselves of various other subsidies, including the earned-income tax credit, which expanded around the same time. It turned out that if welfare recipients were motivated to find jobs, most could, especially when aided by a strong economy.
The evidence is clear that the reform was an improvement over the previous system: Even as they left the welfare rolls in droves, single mothers’ poverty rates plummeted, and stayed below their previous levels even during the Great Recession. But this hardly “solved” American poverty. There were many who left welfare but didn’t find jobs as well, and the states did a poor job of helping them.
The ideal setup is closer to the GOP approach, but less harsh. It includes strong work requirements in poverty programs, coupled with a fair option for able-bodied people who are struggling to find jobs, something constructive they can do for a reasonable amount of time in exchange for the assistance they receive.
That’s why, in considering similar reforms to other programs — programs that have picked up some of the slack that welfare reform left behind — it’s important to have a discussion about what to do with able-bodied people who should be expected to work, but have trouble finding it. It’s also why it’s good to see proposals from both parties that share a basic approach to this question.
What the parties will have to figure out, though, is what this system will look like in practice. The two existing proposals could not be more different, and both are deeply flawed.
The most striking difference is the level of compensation they would provide. Under the House GOP plan, someone without a job would need to spend 20–25 hours a week in a training program to get food stamps, which are worth maybe $200 a month — meaning people could be putting in time at $2 an hour, math that even some conservatives blanch at. (That had better be some really valuable job training.)
By contrast, as Adam Ozimek notes at Forbes, liberals want a job guarantee that doesn’t just make the government the employer of last resort, but also exerts a tremendous amount of pressure on private-sector companies — which would be forced to compete with “guaranteed” employment. Some plans would pay $15 an hour or so; 41 million people across the country, about a quarter of the labor force, currently work for less than that.
So, one party wants to turn an existing safety-net program into a $2 hourly wage for job training, with the goal of getting people into private-sector jobs. The other wants the government to outbid private employers for a substantial share of the low-skill work force. There isn’t so much a “middle ground” as a yawning gap between the two.
The ideal setup is closer to the GOP approach, but less harsh. It includes strong work requirements in poverty programs, coupled with a fair option for able-bodied people who are struggling to find jobs, something constructive they can do for a reasonable amount of time in exchange for the assistance they receive. Maine’s food-stamp reforms for able-bodied, childless adults — which included an option of six hours a week of community service, compensation about in line with minimum wage — are a good model here. There, many recipients dropped off the rolls entirely rather than put in the time; in a future reform, money saved this way could go toward boosting benefits for those who truly need them and are willing to satisfy the requirements.
A system like this communicates clearly that public aid comes with expectations, ensures everyone has a way to keep benefits they need, does not demand too much relative to the aid being offered, and does not undermine the attraction of work in the private sector. Putting it all together into a policy that works both practically and politically — well, that’s the tricky part.