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Work requirements for people who need public assistance don't work | Opinion

Not only do work requirements strip people of the benefits they're eligible to receive, they also drain state taxpayer funds.

In Tennessee, lawmakers want to add a Medicaid work mandate, but only if they can use federal dollars, not state. (Dreamstime)
In Tennessee, lawmakers want to add a Medicaid work mandate, but only if they can use federal dollars, not state. (Dreamstime)Read moreTNS

Proposed work requirements for public benefits, such as those in Pennsylvania House Bills 1659, 2024, and 2183, are a bad idea. Work requirements for public benefits sound reasonable in theory, but are actually harmful and costly to Pennsylvania — and undermine highly effective programs, such as SNAP (food stamps) and Medicaid.

Programs requiring work to receive public benefits hurt working families and punish those who cannot work because they have a disability or are caring for children of a disabled family member.

Work requirements don't help people struggling to get jobs. To the contrary, they take health coverage, nutritious food, and other necessities away from families, making it more difficult for them to find or keep jobs. All the while, work requirements create costly red tape for taxpayers.

Elected officials should reject policies that add red tape and focus more on policies that help workers, such as raising the minimum wage, investing in job training, and making child care and transportation more accessible.

Most people receiving benefits who can work do work, but when wages aren't enough, or when someone is struggling to find a job or can't work, it's important that people be able to care for themselves and their families. Fully 70 percent of Americans will turn to an assistance program to make ends meet at some point during their lives. Public benefits systems, such as Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, are in place to protect all of us when we fall on hard times.

Rather than helping working families move forward, work requirements cause workers to lose benefits when their hours fluctuate, when they cannot navigate complicated paperwork, or when the public assistance office makes a mistake or doesn't process paperwork on time.

Low-wage workers need all of the stability that they can get. When they struggle to eat, or can't receive the medical care they need, they are at great risk to lose the jobs they have and struggle to find new jobs.

Many of the work requirements being proposed require actual employment, not a good-faith effort to find a job. This particularly hurts people in areas of high unemployment, and punishes individuals for reasons beyond their control.

When work requirements are implemented, people without access to transportation or child care lose benefits. Work requirements also harm other people with barriers to employment, including  people who have been involved with the justice system, youths aging out of foster care, people who are homeless, and others who struggle with finding employment.

Cutting off people's basic living standards by taking away their nutrition assistance or medical insurance only makes it harder for them to stay healthy so they can get back on their feet.

Not only do work requirements strip people of benefits they're otherwise eligible to receive, they also drain state taxpayer funds. Work requirements are difficult and expensive to administer, and states must pay much of those costs.

Rather than draining limited state resources on new bureaucracies that don't work and punishing people who are already facing economic hardship, members of the Pennsylvania legislature should focus on policies that create jobs and boost wages by addressing barriers like transportation and child care.

It would be great to see fewer people who need to turn to public programs to make ends meet. To achieve that goal, policy makers should raise the poverty-level minimum wage, which has remained stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2009. Pennsylvania's minimum wage is the lowest in the region.

We should also invest in job training, help pay for child care, and implement other policies that help people earn more, gain skills, and afford a safe place for their children while they're at work.

Any of us could fall on hard times and need to turn to a public assistance program to make ends meet. Implementing work requirements is bad public policy, and will be costly to us all. Policymakers should stand up for struggling families and reject work requirements.

Debby Freedman is executive director of Community Legal Services. Email her at