Some bad ideas never go out of fashion. Despite the dismal track record of welfare reforms in the mid-1990s, lawmakers once again want to use pharisaic work requirements to limit access to the most basic of human rights.
On April 17, the Pennsylvania House passed House Bill 2138, imposing part-time work or training demands on Medicaid recipients. Support for similar legislation looms over food stamps. At best, these legislative proposals are a solution in search of a problem. At worst, they're a mean-spirited attempt to deny assistance to our most vulnerable neighbors.
Proponents of work requirements to safety-net programs often point towards "the dignity of work"—a powerful concept we at Broad Street Ministry value. Since introducing workforce development services earlier this year, we have witnessed first-hand the empowering role employment plays in the lives of many of our neighbors. One prerequisite of dignity, however, is freedom from coercion. Another is being treated like a valued member of a community, not as an expendable number.
So, in the spirit of all things numeric, here are 10 reasons to stop these bills in their tracks:
Little lasting impact on unemployment. The majority of food-stamp recipient households already include at least one working adult. Cuts to stabilizing benefits — unlike a livable wage and hiring people with criminal records — have failed in the past to reduce unemployment.
It's expensive and expands bureaucracy. If — and it's a big if — proponents of these policies are actually committed to developing an under-served workforce, that means dramatically expanding job-training resources at a price tag some estimate near $800 million in the first year. Then there's the administrative cost of enforcing these new policies. Compare those against the $1.40 per meal per day generally allotted to SNAP recipients.
It leaves some people stranded. Although the overwhelming majority of those enrolled in public benefits are children or seniors, many able-bodied adults experience less visible barriers to employment, such as a criminal record, active addiction, and mental illness.
It sets others up to fail. Cumbersome reporting systems mean some people risk losing their benefits because they are between jobs, confused about how to report changes in their hours, unfamiliar with technology, or struggling with literacy or mental illness.
It's sexist and racist. Most women — especially women of color — must contend with income inequality. Meanwhile, roughly half of the working women in the United States lack job protection and family leave, even when unpaid. Medicaid pays for roughly half of all births in this country and is a major support to women's health. Although most enrolled women do work, others are unable to work because they are caring for another family member: a role disproportionately assigned along gender lines.
People need to be healthy to hold a job. Poverty is closely linked with poor health outcomes. Unhealthy people miss more days at work and cannot avoid losing their jobs due to absenteeism attributed to illness. When chronic nerve pain limited my neighbor Karen's ability to work, she lost her job as a cashier. After a struggle with alcohol, Karen made the courageous decision to seek professional help. According to these new restrictions, Karen would have lost coverage months ago, lacking the means to access treatment, trapped in a downward spiral.
It reduces the power of all workers. When we force people to take any job – no matter how undesirable or dangerous — we de-incentivize employers to provide a living wage, job security, and equitable treatment to their workers.
It creates public health concerns and strains health-care providers. Gaps in basic needs like food and medical care for some individuals impact the costs and public health issues shouldered by the population at large. Those without insurance must resort to emergency rooms for treatment, straining hospitals and ringing up astronomical charges.
It subtracts from the economy. Roughly 25 percent of Pennsylvanians use SNAP to buy food for themselves and their families. Research has demonstrated time and again that this spending directly stimulates mom-and-pop businesses and retail giants like Walmart and Amazon.
It's cruel. We do not help people pull themselves up by their boots by taking away their laces.
Although empowering citizens with opportunities for greater self-sufficiency is a laudable goal, the current proposals amount to kicking the working poor while they are already down. Rather than implementing a punitive, ineffective approach, we respectfully recommend that our state and federal legislators focus instead on policies to open our economy up to all participants across the socioeconomic divide, for example through investments in education, workforce training, and livable minimum wages.
Michael McKee is a reentry coordinator at Broad Street Ministry, whose team provides case management-type services and employment support to more than 600 individuals each year.