MICHAEL R. STRAIN: Making welfare recipients work is a question of values

By MICHAEL R. STRAIN
Guest Columnist

(TNS) The wisdom of work requirements in safety-net programs for low-income Americans is being hotly debated in the U.S. Congress, state capitols and policy circles.

In the coming weeks, Congress might expand work requirements in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. With the authorization of the federal government, some states are currently attempting to impose work obligations on recipients of Medicaid, a program that provides health coverage to low-income households. The White House Council of Economic Advisers released a report in July on expanding such requirements in non-cash safety net programs, including housing assistance programs.

Whether there should be a mandatory work component in public policies designed to assist low-income households is in part a question of technical economics. Do such requirements lead to higher rates of employment among targeted populations? Does the safety net as currently structured discourage work? Do the realities of the low-wage labor market make a proposed requirement sensible policy?

But the issue is more about political and moral philosophy than economics.

Whom does society expect to work? In an ethical or cultural sense, should a man in his 30s or 40s without prohibitive health conditions or young children in the home be working? Does that man owe some share of his creativity and energy to the rest of society? Or is it nobody’s business but his whether he works? Rather than requiring work as part of a social contract that includes a safety net, should society view not working as a valid, private, personal decision?

The answers to those questions can’t be generated by a regression equation. And they are fundamental to the debate over work requirements. The questions don’t get much easier when you begin to consider policies for low-income households. What is the underlying nature of these programs?

Some policies, like disability insurance, are exactly that — insurance. Workers make contributions (in the form of payroll taxes) to insure against the risk of becoming disabled and unable to work. In the event that the risk materializes, disabled workers receive cash payments.

But the policies involved in the current discussion — most prominently, Medicaid and food stamps — are not insurance programs. They are available to households who qualify on the basis of low income, few assets and other factors.

Of course, this distinction can be fuzzy. But whether you think of safety-net programs as insurance or as means-tested government benefits is relevant to the work requirements debate.

It may be nobody’s business if an able-bodied 43-year-old without dependent children is not working and is living off an inheritance. It may even be nobody’s business if she isn’t working and is receiving social-insurance payments. But if she is receiving means-tested benefits, it becomes harder to argue that society should not evaluate her situation on normative grounds.

After all, in the most practical sense, the social resources used to finance programs like Medicaid and food stamps come from the individual members of society. Shouldn’t those members have the opportunity to exercise some judgment over how their resources are spent? Agree or disagree, it is at least reasonable for those members to determine that, say, a single mother with three young children should receive health care regardless of her employment status, but the 43-year-old we discussed above really should be working or in a training program for at least 20 hours per week.

Rather than as social insurance or means-tested benefits, you might think of these programs as aid that supports employment. Medical care helps you work. Adequate housing and nutrition help you work. So society provides these for you so that you can work. If this is your lens, then work requirements make even more sense.

Who are programs like food stamps for? Everything I’ve discussed above suggests that they are for adults. But you might view the children of those adults as the primary beneficiaries of these policies.

In the current debate over Medicaid and food stamps, households with young children are exempt from work requirements. But as a general matter, whether you view children or their parents as the main reason for the provision of medical care and food assistance likely has a large impact on whether you think work requirements make sense.

It’s one thing to encourage work. It’s something quite different to tell a hungry person you won’t give him food, or a sick person you won’t give him medical care. But if work requirements are going to have teeth, then that will be necessary. Sending away a hungry person may be reasonable if you think he has the capacity to work. This requires adequate opportunity to use that capacity.

Here is where practical considerations can enter the debate. Should volunteering and community service count as work? At what age do kids stop being “young children”? How should requirements be structured to take into account the volatile nature of the low-wage labor market?

The answers require another column. But too often the debate starts with those questions. It’s better to begin a few steps back — to debate the questions that are less clinical, and that reflect the reality that U.S. social policy is built on a foundation of values.

Michael R. Strain is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is director of economic policy studies and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the editor of “The U.S. Labor Market: Questions and Challenges for Public Policy.”

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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