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Politics & Policy

Not Disabled, Not Working, and Getting Government Help: White House Report Details the Extent of the Problem

Today there’s a new paper out from the president’s Council of Economic Advisers. It basically lays out the justification for Republicans’ various efforts to reform the safety net this year, including proposed changes to food stamps and housing assistance. In essence, the GOP aims to double down on the 1996 reform to cash welfare by beefing up work requirements in other poverty programs.

About one in five non-disabled, working-age adults now receive at least one type of welfare benefit, the report finds. Most of the adults on Medicaid, food stamps, and housing assistance are neither elderly nor disabled — and most of the non-elderly, non-disabled adults on food stamps and Medicaid (and 45 percent of those on housing assistance) don’t work at all in a given month.

The study then digs a bit deeper, looking to see how new work requirements might apply to this population given that such requirements are seldom universal. One major question is how big of an exemption is given to parents: “Between 19 and 24 percent of each program’s total recipients live in a household in which the youngest child is between 6 and 17, and between 22 and 28 percent of each program’s recipients live in a household in which the youngest child is between 1 and 5.”

The report also shows that while the safety net’s expansion has brought poverty down (when poverty is measured properly), trends in self-sufficiency are much less encouraging. And it lays out the case that work requirements are effective in boosting employment, drawing on numerous academic studies, as well as the obvious results of the 1996 reform.

The study pairs well, though, with this report on food stamps from the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. It points out that while many non-elderly, non-disabled adults on food stamps don’t work in a given month, about three-quarters work if you also include jobs they held at any point in the year before or the year after. They treat this as evidence that work opportunities are unstable and sporadic for these folks. Then again, as Robert Cherry once noted, even three-quarters is a far cry from all — especially when you’re using such a generous definition of “working.”

Generally speaking — though Medicaid is a special case — I think it’s entirely fair to ask welfare recipients to work or actively look for work, so long as the demands are fair and there are alternatives (such as training or community service) for those who can’t find jobs. The new report is an excellent rejoinder to claims that these policies aren’t needed, providing data that should inform Republicans as they push forward.


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