As Republicans Attach Work Requirements to, Well, Everything, They’re Driving People Deeper Into Poverty
HUD Secretary Ben Carson unveiled a proposal on Wednesday that would allow housing authorities to implement work requirements, claiming the current system “discourages these families from earning more income and becoming self-sufficient.” But the truth is, as our on-the-ground reporting in Mississippi shows, these requirements utterly fail to help people secure jobs and financial independence.
Thirteen years ago, when Valeria Haley was eight months pregnant with her oldest son, she decided to enroll in Mississippi’s cash welfare program, known nationally as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. She was living with her mother and wanted to contribute to their household. But to qualify for assistance, her caseworker told her she had to go out and look for a job. No matter that Haley, who goes by Val and can’t be much taller than 5 feet, weighing just 110 pounds, had gained 88 pounds during pregnancy, much of it due to water retention. She would soon be diagnosed with preeclampsia, a pregnancy condition that can lead to sometimes fatal complications if left untreated.
Despite her condition, she was determined to meet the requirements and seek work. “Even though I was pregnant, even though I had been sickly, I was still getting up, getting out, trying to get it done,” she told Rewire.News at the nonprofit where she works today in Jackson. She went out every day, trying to get managers at different workplaces to sign a sheet saying she had come by inquiring about employment. “Knowing I’m not gonna get a job, but I got to go so I can keep my benefits coming.”
TANF offers recipients actual money instead of a voucher to pay for needs like food or housing. The median check today is about $430 a month for a single parent with two children; in Mississippi it’s just $170. But ever since Congress attached a work requirement to TANF in the 1990s, nearly anyone who applies has to either maintain a job or look for one to keep those benefits.
Haley’s experience was that the requirement was not just onerous and potentially unsafe for her health, but pointless. She knew looking for work while 8 months pregnant wouldn’t result in a job. “It was unfair to me about me being eight months pregnant for them to even send me out there to look for employment,” she said.
“We all know no one was going to hire me.” A manager at a KFC even told her he was afraid to hire her because she looked like she would have the baby right there in the restaurant. But when she told her caseworker no one was going to hire her in her condition, she was told that failing to look for a job would result in her being out of compliance. “You just really want me to waste my time, have my blood pressure up high because I’m worrying about if I don’t get these people to sign.”
Haley was so determined to hold onto her check that she couldn’t stop thinking about getting her paperwork squared away even as she was having an emergency cesarean section and “fighting for my life.” As she was leaving the hospital after giving birth, she told her mother to take her straight to the Department of Human Services so she could submit the documentation. “I’m still worrying about my benefits, because when I leave here I got to have some money for my baby’s milk,” she said.
Despite her perseverance, she was eventually sanctioned for failing to hand in the sheet showing she had tried to apply for at least eight jobs. After only receiving cash assistance for a few months, she said that she lost all her benefits.
“I had to figure out how I’m a do this,” she said. “I couldn’t figure out how to feed my oldest child I had at home.”
Fearing that if she tried to enroll in welfare again and failed to meet all the requirements she would lose everything, including food stamps and Medicaid, she simply didn’t try again. “If you want to put us through these hoops for the cash benefits, I just really don’t even want them,” she said. “I applied to help my family, but I got off to help my family.”
“If the system was here to help us, then help us, don’t hinder us,” added Haley, who ultimately spent 15 years out of work and off of welfare, surviving off of food stamps. “Don’t offer us this piece of cheese dangling in our face for the longest and once we get there then, oops it’s gone.”
Work requirements are supposed to help transition people from needing cash assistance to paid employment so that they rely on a paycheck instead of government benefits. The idea, as then-President Bill Clinton put it when he signed the reform into law that instituted them in cash welfare, is that recipients will be left better off after being pushed off the program—earning a decent paycheck and enjoying financial stability.
“First and foremost, it should be about moving people from welfare to work,” Clinton said, repeating that phrase—“welfare to work”—four more times during his speech. He argued it would help them “support their families independently” and “share in the prosperity and the promise that most of our people are enjoying today.”
As President Trump and Republicans in Congress today embark on a new quest to enhance or add work requirements to a number of other anti-poverty programs, including food stamps, Medicaid, and even housing, they rely on a similar story. When U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson unveiled a proposal on Wednesday to allow housing authorities to implement work requirements, he claimed the current system “discourages these families from earning more income and becoming self-sufficient.” This comes after the 2017 House Republican-authored budget claimed putting work requirements in programs that don’t have them will “promote work and self-sufficiency.”
But the truth is that we’ve tried this experiment in TANF, and it’s instead proven that these requirements utterly fail to help people secure jobs and financial independence. Much of the decline in people who are enrolled in TANF since it was reformed has been because they were kicked off, not because they found better jobs. Research has found that in many places, people who didn’t have to deal with work requirements were actually more likely to work than those who did. Instead, across the country, TANF’s work requirements mainly act as too high a hurdle for poor people who need the help, leaving them in even more desperate poverty.
“Work requirements are so much more about … barriers and more about cutting people off than they have been about connecting people to opportunity,” said Liz Schott, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). “TANF’s so-called success is more about caseload reduction than it is about successful work outcomes.”
“What happens when people leave the caseload is almost immaterial,” added Melissa Boteach, senior vice president of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress. “They could leave because they got a great job, or they could leave because they’re living on the streets.”
Mississippi has served as a prime example of TANF’s failures. States are given a lot of leeway in designing their programs, and in 2006, Mississippi made its work requirement—which it piloted in 1995, a year ahead of the federal one—even stricter than required by federal law. Anyone who wants to enroll in the state’s program now must first show that they have a job or are searching for a job before they can get any assistance, even subsidies for child care, a benefit critical for helping parents get and keep jobs in the first place.
Interviews with multiple women across the state show that Mississippi’s work requirements don’t assist recipients in finding work, but instead simply discourage them from enrolling to receive needed benefits, keeping them in poverty.
As Mississippi son William Faulkner once put it, “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.” To understand what work requirements do in practice, lawmakers should understand what’s happened in Mississippi. Advocates caution that the painful experience residents have been through offer a cautionary tale about what will happen if requirements are added to other programs.
From “Welfare to Work” to Simply off Welfare
Carrie Ruffin has a larger than life presence—she’s tall, with a booming voice and a laugh that reaches into every corner of a room. She uses her hands, bedecked in bracelets with glittering blue, purple, and clear stones, to accent the stories that she’s ready to share with anyone who will listen.
She laughs even as she recounts what she says was one of her most difficult periods. “It was horrible. The worst experience I have ever went through in my life,” she said.
Ruffin applied for TANF mainly to get child-care assistance when her daughter, now 12 years old, was 1. “I wanted to get back into the work field, I’m used to working,” she said. “I’m a workaholic. I love to work. That is just me.” But her mother was working at the time and couldn’t care for her daughter so she needed a way to pay for day care. She was told that the waiting list for government child care subsidies was closed—unless she enrolled in TANF, which would shoot her to the top.
Indeed, of the nine priority populations who are supposed to get child care subsidies first, “TANF clients are at the top of that list,” said Carol Burnett, executive director of the Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative. “Working parents who don’t come through another public safety net program to child care are at the bottom of that list.” Other parents usually don’t even move up—they haven’t gotten new subsidies since 2014.
“When you have nobody, you’re in this position where, OK, so now I’m just gonna have to break down and go ask for this help,” Ruffin said. But, she added, “You ask for this help and they’re like, ‘Yeah we can help you, but,’ and it’s like capital b capital u capital t with like ten dots.”
“They put so many stipulations on it,” she added, though she was ready to comply with the conditions. Her caseworker at first placed her in what is known as a volunteer work assignment—where recipients put in hours at a job but aren’t paid any wages, simply doing it to meet the requirement. “I was hoping, maybe I volunteer here long enough, maybe someone would notice and I get a job here,” she said.
That didn’t pan out. Instead, Ruffin was assigned to a day care center, which she thought might be a good fit because of her education—two degrees, one in telecommunications and one in electronics—and because she likes children. But on her first day she discovered that her manager was “all the way out of line, very unprofessional.” She didn’t explain how to do the job and then lashed out when Ruffin didn’t do it the way she wanted. Ruffin called her caseworker to tell her how bad the situation was. Rather than finding her a more suitable place to work, the caseworker just reported what Ruffin said back to the manager.
Things kept getting worse, until one day a coworker was sent to ask if Ruffin felt like cleaning the bathroom. “If you ask me if I feel like doing something, I’m going to tell you the truth, I’m not a liar,” she said. So she told the coworker she didn’t feel like cleaning it. When Ruffin went to clock out at the end of the work day, her manager told her she was fired for being insubordinate, having refused to clean the bathroom even though Ruffin insisted she wasn’t directly told to, and because she wasn’t “fitting in.”
Ruffin’s caseworker wasn’t sympathetic. Instead Ruffin was told that she had ten days to find a new job or she’d be sanctioned, her benefits stripped away—including the child care she needed to continue working.
“Where do you expect somebody to find a job in ten days?” she asked, noting that she wasn’t given ten business days—it was ten regular days, including Saturday and Sunday. “Who hires you on a Sunday, let alone a Saturday?” But even two weeks wouldn’t have been enough. “It took me two years to find a part-time job that is suitable for my schedule,” she said.
Ruffin cares not just for her children, but for her mother and her siblings, too, making a regular work schedule difficult to maintain. “How do you expect someone who is already under stress … who may not have a babysitter, who may only have applied for TANF to get the child care so that they can find a job, to find a job in ten days?”
“That. Is. Impossible,” she declared. And indeed it was. She wasn’t able to find a new job in that window, so she lost her meager welfare check for three months.
“After those three months,” she said with a hearty laugh, “I was like, ‘You know what, just give me the SNAP [food stamp] benefits and my Medicaid, keep your child care, keep your little stipend.’” She hasn’t tried to re-enroll in the program since. “I refuse to,” she said. “I don’t care how bad [it gets], I will stay home with my kids and pray.”
Ruffin spent a decade without any child care and therefore without steady work, doing odd jobs like hair or tutoring or tattoos to make some money. It wasn’t until she and her mother were in a car crash two years ago that left her mother unable to work that she began watching Ruffin’s children, and Ruffin began applying for more permanent work. At the beginning of January, she got hired as an after-school instructor for Springboard to Opportunities, a nonprofit that connects families in affordable housing to programs and services.
“I love it. I love it,” she whispers with clear delight. And the job fits with her schedule: it’s part time, allowing her to both work and continue caring for her family. “I go home to my kids and still have time with my kids in the evening time. It’s wonderful.”
Ruffin was clear that her job was not a result of TANF’s work requirements. For three women interviewed by Rewire.News, enrollment in TANF was only followed deeper bouts of poverty after each was eventually sanctioned for failing to meet the work requirement—without having gained any skills or connections that could have helped them get the jobs they eventually secured on their own.
Work can be difficult to find in Mississippi, especially in rural areas. The state’s unemployment rate remains above the national one. Even when people do find jobs, average pay is only about $38,000 a year and is even lower in the service jobs welfare recipients are more likely to get. Women make even less, earning about three-quarters of what men in the state earn.
“It was supposed to be from welfare to work, and it just turned to off welfare,” explained Oleta Garrett Fitzgerald, the director of the Children’s Defense Fund Southern region.
Fitzgerald began working for the Children’s Defense Fund Southern region just before welfare reform passed. At first it seemed that Mississippi’s response wouldn’t be overly punitive, but the state failed to follow through on its original promises to fund programs connecting people to child care and transportation and help them find work. By 2013, less than 15 percent of eligible children under age 6 were covered by a child care subsidy in a given month, despite the fact that daycare can run nearly $10,000 a year in the state. “There were no jobs,” she said.
So perhaps it wasn’t a surprise that in a report her group commissioned to see what happened to people after it was implemented, by late 1999 a third of the recipients simply dropped off the program. Another third went to work, but it was unstable and part time. Only a third got a steady job.
Today, out of the few people who make it onto TANF in Mississippi, only 40 percent are in unsubsidized employment—a private sector job that pays them in wages, not just welfare benefits. “There are parts of the state where there are no job openings, and if there are, they’re part-time jobs,” said Democratic state Rep. Jarvis Dortch of Jackson in a smart suit with a shy demeanor.
Mississippi’s rules are particularly harsh. But work requirements have been tried out in TANF programs across the country. The results have been catastrophic.
“Families often aren’t lifted out of poverty,” said Ife Floyd, senior policy analyst at the CBPP. “They’re experiencing greater hardship than they were when they were on TANF.”
First there’s the fact that work requirements don’t help people work. A CBPP review of the research from California, Georgia, Michigan, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Indiana found that people who were subjected to TANF work requirements were, within five years, no more likely to be employed than those who hadn’t been. In some places, those who didn’t have to deal with work requirements were actually more likely to work.
Those who did get a job were most likely to end up in unstable work that lasted less than three-quarters of the year rather than a steady job. Recipients in Kansas frequently worked before entering the program and remained just as likely to do so after they were sanctioned, but jobs were spotty throughout the year for the majority of them. In Maryland, over a third of people kicked off the program had no job at all five years out.
“The jobs that people get often have very highly variable hours, often in retail, food service, warehouses, contingent work,” said Elizabeth Lower-Basch, director of income and work supports at the Center for Law and Social Policy. “They don’t provide benefits and they … really treat workers as commodities” who are easily replaceable.
Work requirements also don’t leave people in a better financial state. Two-thirds of parents who left TANF in Kansas still lived in deep poverty, and annual median earnings for those who left because of a work sanction were just $2,175 four years later. More than a third had no earnings at all. In Maryland, just 8 percent lived above the poverty line for a family of three. Far more former recipients in the other states lived in deep poverty after being subject to a work requirement than above the poverty line; only one site in California managed to significantly reduce recipients’ poverty rate.
“People have all kinds of barriers to work, and absent addressing them, it’s going to be very difficult for people to find and sustain work,” said Boteach. “Then you take away income assistance and they’re going to decline into deeper poverty.”
“There’s not a lot of evidence that anybody’s coming out better off,” Schott added.
Thus work requirements have played a huge role in the fact that TANF serves a tiny fraction of poor families, particularly compared to how many were served before 1996. Back then, more than two-thirds of poor families were enrolled. Today it’s less than a quarter.
Overall, TANF’s incentives skew toward kicking people off the program, not keeping them on and helping them find good jobs. States get credits when their rolls go down, no matter the reason, which can also free up more of the fixed pot of federal money they get. “The goal of TANF was caseload reduction, not poverty reduction,” Boteach said.
That means the program’s job assistance has mostly remained weak. “It’s always going to be cheaper and easier not to serve people than to provide significant services,” Lower-Basch explained, including the services that could help people get jobs. Mostly it consists of giving pointers on how to do an interview and then putting people in front of computers to apply for jobs. While that could be helpful to someone at first, particularly if they don’t have much experience hunting for work, after some repetition it’s not going to do much. “I’d say the majority of people have more access to very thin job search assistance than to meaningful training,” she said.
“If what you’re doing is imposing these work requirements because you’re trying to accomplish some kind of goal for the families, then this is not the way to do it,” said Burnett, a small woman with glasses and a long ponytail who has worked with poor families in Mississippi for decades. “But if what you’re doing is imposing the work requirements just to be punitive because you think these people have to be forced to go to work because they won’t otherwise, that’s a different matter.”
Burnett was running an adult literacy program where women could take classes and still get welfare benefits when the state first tried out a work requirement. After it was implemented, their classes no longer satisfied the conditions and the women had to instead go find a job. “To be forced back into the workforce with no high school degree was just sentencing them to a lifetime of minimum wage work, which they were trying to escape by using the previous welfare program to move up,” Burnett said. “This program threw them right back into this trap that they were trying to get out of.”
In one in-depth survey her organization conducted of seven women who had all dropped out of high school, three were pushed out of their GED programs by the new requirement.
“The work ethic is so strong, so all of this crap about needing to force people to go to work is just crap,” Burnett added. “Women work so hard. Their jobs just don’t pay enough to get them above the federal poverty level.”
Indeed, Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation: Over 20 percent of the population, or more than 620,000 people, live below the poverty level. Rates are even higher for women—about 23 percent live in poverty—and Black people, nearly a third of whom live in poverty. And yet today, fewer than 7 percent of eligible families are enrolled in its welfare program.
“This Isn’t About Work, It’s About Paperwork”
At first blush, Shaterica Mosely-Brown would appear to be a TANF success story. The 25-year-old lives with her husband and three children in a two-bedroom house on a cozy, quiet cul-de-sac in D’Iberville, Mississippi. After working as a certified nursing assistant for three years, she decided to go to nursing school full-time in December with plans to eventually become a registered nurse. In fact, she’s been working ever since she left TANF for a job at an outlet mall. But that’s thanks to her own drive, not to work requirements.
She enrolled in TANF in 2011 as a senior in high school and a brand new mother. “It was kind of hard times,” she explains, still wearing her nursing uniform with her hair up in a braid while trying to entice her kids to leave her alone by promising candy if they’re quiet. (It doesn’t work.) “Trying to find a job but having a child, trying to finish out my senior year, it’s pretty much impossible.” When another girl at school told her about TANF, she looked it up online. It took her four months to satisfy the upfront job requirement and get enrolled.
Once on the program, she was required to report to the Department of Human Services from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. for a volunteer work assignment. “I was pretty much … just sitting there all day,” she said. “I would copy papers for them, staple papers … I was just doing busywork.” But if she didn’t put in the required hours, her check would shrink.
Eventually she was told to go instead to a WIN job center in Gulfport, a 17-mile drive one way from where she lived. All this for $270 a month plus $75 for transportation. “It really wasn’t like I was winning the lottery to jump through these hoops,” she said.
It wasn’t that the money didn’t help—even though she was enrolled in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, she often still needed to buy supplementary formula, which ran about $20 a can, and also needed cash for things like diapers and wipes. But because the rules were so strict, she only stayed on for about four months. She doesn’t think TANF did anything to help her get a job and leave the program, especially since the only experience she got (filing paperwork) did not help her in her new job selling bras and panties. “It would have been great if it prepared me—but no.”
“I’m grateful for it, because had I not had it, it would have been a much [more] difficult struggle,” she said. “But I don’t want to do it again …. Even if I needed it, I would just struggle for a little while before I would do that.”
Republicans in Congress have recently pushed for adding work requirements to even more programs. On April 10, President Trump issued an executive order calling on agencies to review how much they can add or enhance work requirements under current law in order to “improve employment outcomes and economic independence” through new or stricter work requirements, declaring that welfare reform in the 1990s was “a step” toward this goal. “Part of President Trump’s effort to create a booming American economy includes moving Americans from welfare to work,” White House adviser Andrew Bremberg told reporters.
A day later, Republicans in Congress unveiled a farm bill that includes a proposal to require more food stamp recipients to work or enroll in training programs. (Many recipients, particularly able-bodied adults without children, already must meet work requirements to get food stamps.)
That follows the Trump administration agreeing in January to sign off on waivers allowing states to impose work requirements on their Medicaid programs for the first time in history. The new requirements, explained Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma, purportedly will “help people in achieving greater well-being and self-sufficiency.”
Republicans have been leading up to this for years. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has been favorably referring to the 1996 welfare reform bill ever since he started writing his party’s budget proposals, and in 2014 when he released his sweeping audit of the country’s anti-poverty programs, he called it “the most fundamental reform to welfare yet.” The fiscal year 2018 House budget called for instituting work requirements in food stamps and Medicaid. The idea then cropped up in Trump’s budget.
But while Republicans may think that welfare reform helps make their case for adding work requirements to virtually any anti-poverty program, there’s every reason to think the same debilitating problems that have afflicted TANF in Mississippi will be transmitted to other programs if work requirements are added. Medicaid work requirements could throw 6.3 million people off of the rolls—many of them students, caregivers, and retirees. Two million people are at risk of losing their food stamps or having them reduced if stricter work requirements go into effect.
Even people who work could end up losing Medicaid. “These jobs are not secure,” as Ruffin put it. “It’s no guarantee that tomorrow you’re going to be on this job.” Indeed, a recent report from the CBPP found that 46 percent of low-income workers still don’t have steady enough employment to meet these requirements and could therefore risk getting kicked off. The same is true for people who receive food stamps.
Once again Mississippi has been at the front of the pack in making public programs more punitive, filing a waiver request with the federal government last December to add work requirements to its Medicaid program. Dortch said the new state Medicaid director has indicated he doesn’t want people “dependent” on the program. “It’s health insurance, you can’t be unreliant on health insurance. It’s kind of something you need for life,” Dortch said. Not to mention that plenty of working people are on Medicaid, particularly in Mississippi, but either don’t make enough to afford private health insurance or aren’t offered any through their jobs. “I don’t even know what the end game of this is other than to shrink government,” Dortch added.
The consequences of work requirements in SNAP and Medicaid could be even more devastating than those for TANF. The cash assistance program at least includes spending on work support services—job search resources, child care subsidies, transportation stipends. The others don’t come with the same programs. “It’s not clear that there’s going to be any program or any resources … for Medicaid and [SNAP],” Schott said. “Those really are, ‘Go get a job and if you don’t have a job you don’t eat or you don’t get health care.’”
“A lot of this is just about bureaucratic disentitlement,” Boteach said. “How much red tape can we throw up in front of people so that even if they are eligible it’s so hard for them and so stigmatizing for them that they just won’t do it.”
“This isn’t about work, it’s about paperwork,” she added.
Mississippi residents will be left particularly vulnerable if food stamps and Medicaid come with stricter requirements. While everyone Rewire.News spoke with tried to stay far away from TANF, most relied on food stamps to feed their kids and Medicaid to keep them healthy.
“I cannot afford health insurance,” Ruffin said. “I have not been able to. There’s no way I would have been able to.” But, she pointed out, kids get sick a lot—so Medicaid has been a lifesaver. “If it wasn’t for that we would be jacked up.”
Floyd pointed out that among the growing share of U.S. families living in extreme poverty—surviving off $2 a day per person or less—many at least can still qualify for food stamps and have something to eat. “Folks are living off food stamps,” Fitzgerald said. “Once you pull that rug, then I don’t know what they expect of these families.”
There are ways to help people find and keep employment, if that’s the goal. But none of those appear on Republicans’ radars, at either the state or federal level.
“The state’s workforce leaders are wringing their hands over the fact that we have a low workforce participation rate,” Burnett said. But it’s “not rocket science.”
Burnett also runs a women-in-construction program that trains low-income women in a job that pays much better than what they can typically expect, while also covering their child care costs. “If you make a mom go to work at a $7.25 an hour job and you give her child care, that’s great … but it’s not going to [achieve] the outcome you want,” she said. “And if you put a mom on a pathway for higher earnings but don’t provide child care, she’s probably not going to be able to finish her stay at work.”
Child care is the biggest obstacle most women face in getting work. “It’s not like there’s not a solution to the problem,” Burnett added.
“We know a fair amount of what works,” Lower-Basch agreed. Help people increase their education, skills, and credentials. Provide them with child care. Ensure that if someone’s kids get sick she won’t get fired for taking a day off.
On the other hand, accessing anti-poverty programs can help people find and keep jobs. “If you’re not hungry, you can focus on keeping your job,” Floyd said. “If you have housing and don’t have to worry about that, you can focus on keeping your job or looking for work.”
“Taking away people’s food, health care, housing isn’t going to help them find a job any faster,” Boteach agreed. Access to health care is associated with better employment and wages; adequate food increases cognitive function; housing assistance can help people stay in the workforce and earn more.
It’s not like TANF or other programs couldn’t use some retooling, either. But lawmakers aren’t listening to the people most affected by the proposals they’ve put forward.
“Let us tell you what’s going on,” Haley said. “Take some time out to hear us.”
Dortch agrees. “Come down here and see people face-to-face,” he urged. “Just test these things out …. These things sound good in theory.” But the reality, as Mississippi has found out over the past 20 years, is that work requirements fail at helping people get work—what they succeed at is keeping people off the program and in deeper poverty.