The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
April 11, 2018

What research tells us about work requirements

April 11, 2018

Yesterday, the Trump administration released an executive order instructing all cabinet departments to develop work requirement policies for recipients of federal aid programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps), and Medicaid.

But what do we actually know about work requirements? As agencies work through the 90-day review process, three things are important to keep in mind:

  1. Work requirements aren’t a groundbreaking policy solution—they are already present in many programs.
  2. Many recipients are already working.   
  3. Many recipients want to work but face significant challenges to joining the labor force. For these people, adding requirements without removing barriers may do more harm than good.

Work requirements aren’t new, but they have not proven to be effective

Low-income families who currently receive federal cash assistance, food assistance, and some housing assistance often must adhere to some kind of work-related requirements, whether that’s searching for a job, receiving job training, or engaging in employment and community activities.

Summary of Work Requirements in TANF, SNAP, and Housing Assistance Programs as of December 2017

But we know these requirements often do not help families secure the stable, well-paying jobs that get them off assistance for good.

For example, evidence shows that TANF work requirements, implemented during a strong economy, led to modest but unstable employment increases that decreased with time, and the jobs people found did not lift them out of poverty. And there isn’t enough information about the limited implementation of work requirements in housing assistance programs to determine the effects on employment and incomes.

Most Medicaid and SNAP recipients who can work do work (or are between jobs)

For many aid recipients, working isn’t the problem—finding and securing a job that pays enough and is stable enough to cover the gaps currently filled by assistance is the problem.

But for some, working isn’t a realistic option.

According to estimates from the March 2017 Current Population Survey, 8 out of 10 nondisabled, nonelderly Medicaid recipients lived in working families, with 64 percent living in a family with a full-time worker. Sixty percent were working themselves.

More than half (58 percent) of working-age, nondisabled SNAP households are employed while receiving benefits; for households with children, that rises to 62 percent. Even more—greater than 80 percent—were employed within the year before or after receiving SNAP, indicating that they used the benefits while between jobs.

Kentucky recently received a waiver to expand Medicaid work requirements. While we don’t yet know how these changes will play out on the ground, among those potentially subject to work requirements and not already working,

  • 44 percent are older than 50,
  • 59 percent have at least one serious health limitation or live with someone who does, and
  • nearly 25 percent do not have a high school degree, 25 percent lack internet access, and 11 percent lack access to a vehicle.

Altogether, nearly three-quarters of these Kentuckians do not have access to a vehicle or the internet in their household, have not completed high school, or have a serious health limitation or live with someone who does. Complying with work requirements will likely present serious challenges.

The motivation to work is already there

Aid recipients have genuine incentives to find jobs without a work requirement—they want the dignity and autonomy that comes with work. They want to support their families, improve their living situations, and build their confidence. What they need is access to skills, training, employment services, and other work supports—access that is especially hard to achieve when they’re worried about how they’re going to feed their families.

I’ve spent two decades researching how TANF and other supports for low-income families work in practice. I consistently and clearly hear parents say they want to work, to be self-sufficient, and to leave TANF. As one Michigan mother told me, “I would give anything and trade all the TANF I could ever get for a stable job.”

Work requirements, in theory, seek to ensure that people aren’t avoiding employment, but the evidence shows that the red tape associated with work requirements can cause people to lose access to vital supports, even when they are working or should be exempt. We have seen in Medicaid and SNAP that even without work requirements, eligible people lose access to basic health care and food for administrative reasons like not completing paperwork on time, not receiving notices, or office errors. Introducing or enhancing work requirements in Medicaid and SNAP could compound these burdensome processes.

Rather, federal programs can support these individuals and families by expanding access to workforce development programs and improving access to assistance. Enacting work requirements could undermine the employment and skill-development goals of the workforce development system while denying basic health care and food to adults and children who need it.

Samantha Watson, a single mother and nursing student, dries dishes while her daughter Audrey plays. Without the benefits that Samantha receives from TANF she would not be able to go to school and support her daughter. Photo by Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images.

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