Opinion: The debt ceiling deal’s ‘work requirements’ really just take food away from poor people

A cart with groceries being pushed down a supermarket aisle.
A preschool teacher who receives nutrition assistance shops for groceries at a supermarket in Bellflower.
(Allison Dinner / Associated Press)
Share via

President Biden and House Republicans’ tentative deal to raise the debt ceiling makes cuts in domestic spending that are likely to disproportionately hurt low-income and other vulnerable people. The agreement to avoid defaulting on U.S. debt targets one group, struggling workers in their 50s, for particularly harsh treatment by denying many of them food assistance. This is indefensible.

The media have lazily echoed Republicans’ characterizations of the proposed new restrictions on nutritional assistance as “work requirements.” They are not.

When most people hear “work requirement,” they assume that those in need can just meet the requirement and obtain assistance. They assume they’re like the airlines’ seat belt requirement, which allows anyone to fly as long as they simply buckle up.


Before the 1990s, work requirements in welfare programs generally operated that way. No more. President Clinton’s welfare reform ushered in a new kind of “work requirement” that is really a means of disqualifying unemployed and underemployed people from public assistance. Denying assistance to people when they are between jobs — that is, when they need it most — would strike most people as cruel. So those seeking to do so came up with the Orwellian term “work requirement,” and it stuck.

Since 1996, aid to childless adults up to age 50 under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP and formerly as food stamps, has been subject to termination after three months without monthly proof of at least half-time employment. The debt limit agreement would extend that restriction to age 55.

The Social Security Administration categorizes those who would be affected as “closely approaching advanced age.” People with limited education and skills face increasingly bleak employment prospects as they get older and their capacity for heavy manual labor declines. Many support themselves by stitching together several part-time jobs with hours that tend to be highly variable.

Some of their employers have no interest in reporting their hours to government agencies. And sometimes their total hours may fall just short of half-time, at which point their benefits are cut off. In theory, they can reapply when their hours increase, but applying for aid is arduous — all the more so when one is juggling several unreliable jobs.

When so-called work requirements were first imposed, proponents insisted that anyone who could not find work could perform “workfare” — unpaid community service in exchange for benefits. The law did permit that, but only a few states instituted workfare programs, and even those typically served only small numbers of people in a few counties. The Clinton administration and Congress provided extra funds to states that agreed to offer work opportunities to those who would otherwise be denied benefits, but only a handful of states accepted — and at least one failed to keep its promise.

State officials across the political spectrum dislike operating workfare programs because they’re complicated, expensive and ineffective at helping people obtain paid employment. Conservative states prefer simply to cut off assistance. Liberal states would rather provide the aid to those who need it and let them seek jobs on their own — which they generally do energetically so they can earn money for housing, utilities and other needs beyond food.


Proponents of work requirements also insisted that states could obtain waivers for people in areas with insufficient job opportunities. But conservatives characterized such waivers as anti-work and passed laws prohibiting state human services agencies from seeking them even for the most depressed areas.

Advocates of the restrictions also point out that the law exempts those who can establish an inability to work due to disability. But the people being denied assistance often lack access to doctors to document those disabilities, especially in conservative states that have rejected the Medicaid expansion enabled by the Affordable Care Act.

For a quarter-century, we have denied food assistance to people who are temporarily unemployed, underemployed or for various reasons unable to clear a host of bureaucratic hurdles. Numerous studies have found that this has done nothing to increase employment.

Disqualifying older workers is even less likely to achieve that supposed goal. And because food assistance benefits are so modest, the additional restrictions are also unlikely to reduce the deficit by much. The deal being considered by Congress does add minor exemptions from the requirement, but the fundamental result will be to deny food to older workers who are out of work.

Astonishingly, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his fellow Republicans held U.S. creditworthiness and the global economy hostage for this reprehensible purpose — and the president gave them what they wanted. The result should bring nothing but shame on everyone involved.

David A. Super is a professor of law and economics at Georgetown.