Op-Ed: ‘Work requirements’ for public benefits are really just time limits

President Trump speaks in Washington on Jan. 12.
President Trump speaks in Washington on Jan. 12.
(Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA-EFE )

Once upon a time, everyone knew what a work requirement was. The agency administering a public benefit program would offer unpaid work to a recipient and reduce or terminate assistance if she or he refused to comply. Supporters extolled the requirements as character-building; critics worried about displacing regular employees and sometimes hazardous workplace conditions. Those days are long gone.

Today, politicians — including in the Trump administration, which last week said it would allow states to tie Medicaid benefits to employment — use the term “work requirement” to hide the true nature of their proposals.

So-called work requirements are now really time limits, disqualifications for those whose job searches have failed to bear fruit, or ruses for running needy people through bureaucratic mazes until they miss a step and lose eligibility.

As part of the 1996 welfare reform legislation, for example, the Clinton administration and the Republican Congress added a “work requirement” to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Childless adults between the ages of 18 and 50 could obtain no-strings-attached access to the program for only three months. After that point, if they couldn’t find a job, they could theoretically retain eligibility by performing workfare. But there was a catch: States were not obliged to offer recipients workfare slots. And, in fact, the vast majority of SNAP recipients cut off under the “work requirement” were given no opportunity to work for continued aid.

The transformation in the nature and function of “work requirements” reflects a change in the agendas of those proposing them.


Even when the Clinton administration set aside a pool of money to reward states that pledged to offer work slots, only a small handful accepted. As a result, millions of needy people, many of whom qualified for no other public programs, were cut off from food assistance without regard to their willingness to work.

The SNAP “work requirement” continued in force until the Great Recession, when Congress suspended it temporarily as part of the Obama administration’s stimulus law. In recent years, however, it has been reimposed on much of the country, with many otherwise-eligible people suddenly denied food assistance when they could not find jobs quickly enough.

We shouldn’t be surprised that states aren’t operating large work programs — they’re difficult and expensive.

All of us can think of a few public services that could be improved with better staffing, but finding enough such positions for hundreds of thousands or even millions is an entirely different matter. Unemployed public-benefit recipients commonly have limited job skills. It’s a Herculean effort to match people with tasks they can perform. Those recipients who do have skills, moreover, turn over rapidly as they get paying jobs in the private sector.

Yet the Trump administration’s letter to states last week encouraged them to make the phony SNAP “work requirement” the model for Medicaid eligibility restrictions. As per usual, states are not required to give Medicaid beneficiaries workfare slots if they cannot find private-sector employment.

A close cousin of the “work requirement” as time limit is the “work requirement” as calendar-filler that’s really an excuse for caseload reduction. In some states, for instance, recipients subject to “work requirements” are not actually asked to work but rather obliged to come in for a seemingly endless series of orientations, meetings and repetitive pep talks. Sooner or later, the notice for one of these meetings comes late in the mail, or the meeting conflicts with an interview the recipient has for an actual job. As a result, the recipient is sanctioned for non-compliance. Because our safety-net agencies are woefully understaffed, getting through to someone on the phone to explain the problem and reschedule is often impossible.

The Trump administration’s letter to states also holds up as a model the work programs under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant. These programs have dramatically reduced participation despite continued high poverty among families with children — which is the whole point.

The transformation in the nature and function of “work requirements” reflects a change in the agendas of those proposing them. Previously, many conservatives’ public welfare policy focused primarily on correcting the perceived flaws in low-income people’s behavior. Today, the focus is on paying for huge upper-income tax cuts. Traditional work requirements — in which recipients were actually given the opportunity to work for continued aid — do not serve that purpose because they actually cost money.

Arbitrary and unreasonable time limits and purging still-needy recipients through bureaucratic churn can reap large budgetary savings. And calling these proposals “work requirements” makes them seem fair and reasonable.

David A. Super is a professor of law at Georgetown University.

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion or Facebook