Should People on Public Benefits Be Required to Work? The Facts Might Surprise You.

By Rachel Puryear

If you or someone you love has ever received public benefits, you may know that some benefit programs require people to work a minimum numbers of hours per week (usually 20-30) as a condition of receiving benefits (“work requirements”).

Work requirements typically exempt elderly adults, minor children, people who are disabled, people who are already employed the minimum number of hours per week, pregnant people and people with small children, and sometimes other groups of people.

Accordingly, this discussion will focus on work requirements regarding non-disabled, working-age adults without small children.

Note: For this discussion, “public benefits” refers to means-tested governmental assistance for low-income people; including with health care, food, and housing.

Many people believe that work requirements for public benefits are fair and justified.

Historically, imposing work requirements has tended to be politically popular, and especially appealing to conservatives (though not exclusively so) – with many politicians using support for work requirements to their advantage.

But do the evidence and facts justify the popularity and widespread imposition of work requirements?

Imposing work requirements for public benefit recipients raises questions, including:

  • Do work requirements actually help people receiving public benefits become better off?
  • What problems can arise out of imposing work requirements?
  • If work requirements don’t work, what does help low-income people earn more instead?
Several workers on a rooftop, wearing bright vests and hard hats. By Scott Blake.

Do Work Requirements Help People Receiving Public Benefits Become Better Off?

Studies abundantly show that work requirements don’t lift people out of poverty. They don’t even make much of a difference in terms of how many people work.

Furthermore; studies have found that recipients subject to work requirements are more likely to remain in poverty for the long term, and are more likely to become even poorer; than recipients not subject to work requirements.

How can that be?

Hands holding open empty brown wallet. By Towfiqu Barbhuiya.

Most People on Public Benefits Work if They Can, With or Without Work Requirements

In short, you could say that work requirements for public benefits are a solution in search of a problem.

Let’s first acknowledge an elephant in the room around this subject:

Work requirements appeal to a common notion that poor people, especially those receiving assistance; are lazy and good-for-nothing – and forcing them to get off their asses and work is a good thing.

This notion is false. Big-time, pants-on-fire false.

It’s also deeply rooted in racism – the incorrect belief that most public benefits recipients are people of color (the majority are white), and the dangerous stereotype that people of color are poorer than whites because they are less hardworking.

These beliefs are very much out of sync with reality.

The vast majority of people receiving public benefits who are able to work do so.

Cashier assisting customer in coffee shop. By Blake Wisz.

Imposing work requirements marginally increases the number of public assistance recipients working, for the short term.

That’s because people who can feasibly work (without significant barriers to doing so) were usually already working in the first place.

Those not working usually have good reasons why they were not – it’s not laziness. Furthermore, work requirements won’t solve those reasons.

What Problems Can Arise Out of Imposing Work Requirements?

Work requirements can lead to people losing their benefits – even when they’re still eligible for them, and still need them. This is due to a fundamental lack of understanding of reasons why people are poor.

Disabilities and Limitations are Not All or Nothing

We tend to think of working-age adults as either being totally disabled, and unable to work at all; or as being fully able-bodied (including full cognitive abilities), and capable of doing any kind of work, full-time.

However, it’s not such a bright line between these two. There are a lot of people who fall somewhere in between these two extremes.

Many people have limitations on the type and amount of work they can do, but it falls somewhere short of total disability.

Man using a wheelchair, and videoconferencing while working.

People with limitations that fall short of total disability often work when they can, and as much as they can – but may need to stop working or reduce hours at times, for health-related reasons. Public benefits can help them survive these times.

Yet, these people won’t qualify for total disability – but they may not be able to meet work requirements to get needed public benefits, either.

Some Non-Working Recipients Take the Opportunity to Improve Their Earning Capacity

For some people receiving public benefits, they use a time of non-employment to better their ability to earn a living for the longer term.

Some of them take classes to improve their level of education, or to qualify themselves for a new position or industry; thereby increasing their longer term earning capacity.

A student holding a young child, and smiling, during his graduation ceremony.

Some of them start a business, thereby empowering themselves to earn a living through self-employment – which can be especially empowering when their local job market might not offer them much.

The ability to improve one’s earning capacity while having basic needs provided for is a huge stepping stone to upward mobility, and getting oneself out of poverty.

Many people receiving public assistance have done exactly this, and it should be encouraged.

Imposing work requirements, however, derails such efforts; cutting off a trajectory where someone could have gotten out of poverty in the long run.

Seasonal and Self-Employed Workers May Not Be Able to Reasonably Meet Work Requirements

Imagine that in your line of work, your hours vary a lot – and there’s a lot of up and down.

So, you rely on public benefits from time to time, to help you get through the leaner times. That is, until…you find yourself having to prove you’re working a minimum number of hours per week in order to keep your benefits.

Farm workers working in a field. By Matthias Mitterlehner.

That’s right, the times when you need the benefits the most, because you aren’t getting much work; that’s when you have to be working in order to get those benefits.

See the catch-22 here?

Work Requirements Don’t Necessarily Take Essential Caregivers Into Account

What if you are a caregiver for children, an elderly person, or a person with a disability? This is a common reason for many people, especially women, to limit their working hours at paid employment – so that they can meet the care needs of other family members.

Do caregivers deserve to be kicked off of assistance because they cannot find employment which accommodates their care duties?

Our society absolutely needs people to fulfill these caregiving roles. It’s well worth it to give caregivers some benefits to help them survive – in fact, it’s the least we can do.

Baby feet, with adult hands holding them. By Bonnie Kittle.

For many, myself included, the ability to work remotely makes a huge difference in the ability to work, generally. Although remote jobs are increasing, there’s still lots of pushback from managers about it, so there’s not as many remote jobs as there could be.

Work Requirements Won’t Fix Labor Shortages, Either

Nowadays, many business owners hit hard by the pandemic blame “generous” benefits for the shortage of workers willing and available to fulfill roles needed to run their businesses.

Having run small businesses before myself, I do sympathize with the need for qualified labor. However, that’s not a problem that’s going to be fixed with either work requirements, or cutting public benefits.

Small business owner putting up “help wanted” sign.

First of all, again, most public benefits recipients are already working, so they’re not available to fill open jobs.

Second, people who care for children and other family members require appropriate, available, affordable daycare or respite care in order to hold down a job – especially a job that cannot offer flexibility. Care that checks all those boxes is difficult to come by.

Third, many jobs that are hard to fill today are the kind of public-facing service jobs in which many workers were infected during the pandemic. Some of those workers died, while others moved on to something with less exposure. Public benefits aren’t what’s keeping them from working in these jobs.

Furthermore, just because someone is available and willing to work, does not necessarily mean they are qualified or well-suited for a particular job. Which leads to the next point…

Low-Income People Often Have Limited Job Skills, and/or Have Difficulty Competing for Jobs

People receiving public benefits may or may not be a fit for jobs that are open.

In fact, for recipients who are unemployed despite job openings available, that may be part of the problem – they’re having trouble getting hired, despite genuine efforts at job searching.

People in this situation may have limited education and skills. Or, they may frequently face discrimination in hiring.

Telling people to get jobs they’re not qualified for, or likely won’t be able to get, doesn’t help anyone.

Kicking people off of public benefits for being unable to find a job is counterproductive, and fundamentally unjust.

Group of blue game tokens together, with an orange one excluded.

Additionally, just because a job has low pay (such as many service jobs) doesn’t mean that everyone can do them.

Not everyone can move quickly enough, be on their feet all day, deal with the public effectively, or focus long enough to do these kinds of jobs. These jobs are more difficult than many want to acknowledge.

If Work Requirements Don’t Work, What Does Help Low-Income People Earn More Instead?

The good news is, there are solutions which can help people receiving public benefits earn more money, and get out of poverty – including for the long term!

Let’s discuss what actually does help.

Good solutions include offering voluntary job training, and making education available to people who want such services. This helps people learn more marketable job skills, get better jobs, and become better able to financially support themselves.

One worker training and mentoring another.

Subsidized daycare for children, and respite care for elderly and disabled adults who need care, would also free up a lot of lower-income people to pursue employment; whereas many of them are currently caregivers, because it doesn’t make financial sense for them to do otherwise.

Caregivers of young children, and of adults who need round-the-clock care; already have full-time jobs – whether or not the rest of the world appreciates that. In order to have another job, they would need help with the one they have.

Furthermore, a behavioral science study found that implementing three key principles helps reduce poverty:

  • Make it easier to participate in a public benefits program. Low-income people often have complicated lives, and frequent crises – making it easier to get assistance is much more helpful than making it needlessly difficult.
  • Create “slack” for participants – giving them enough time, resources, and attention – so that they can better comply with program requirements, and focus their efforts on getting out of poverty.
  • Change the narrative around benefit programs, in order to empower participants and focus on their needs; rather than clinging to rigidity, and an attitude that participants are undeserving of assistance.

Accordingly; work requirements are not based in facts or evidence, and they’re not about helping people get jobs and escape poverty.

Instead, they’re about helping certain politicians get votes by appealing to racism, and harmful beliefs about poor people. This is a big problem in the United States.

The next time you hear someone talk about “all those lazy people on welfare,” know that it says a lot more about that person than it does about anyone receiving public assistance.

Furthermore; funds that people in need receive from public assistance programs doesn’t even begin to compare to how much money has been crammed into the already-overflowing pockets of ultra-wealthy people and corporations over the years.

Wealth flowing to the top has included tax cuts for the wealthy (while raising middle class taxes), gun laws favoring gun manufacturer profits over public safety, war profiteering for oil companies through the blood of our soldiers and civilians overseas, and so much more.

The next time a politician claims to be a pro-veteran, patriotic American; ask whether they prioritize our troops’ lives over oil profits – and where they stand on public benefits, as many recipients are disabled and otherwise struggling veterans.

We do, indeed, have a big problem in the USA with certain people mooching and leeching off the rest of us, and wasting large amounts of money that could be much better spent elsewhere.

However, those moochers and leeches certainly aren’t poor people trying to feed, house, and provide health care for their families.

Thank you, dear readers, for reading, following, and sharing. Here’s to reducing poverty with strong social safety nets, and making opportunities more accessible.

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