The flawed case for harsh work requirements

The flawed case for harsh work requirements
© Getty

Helping jobless individuals who are able to work to get decent-paying jobs and succeed in the labor market is good for both families and the economy. But we shouldn’t adopt policies that have been shown to hurt the very people we’re trying to help.

Experience with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program provides an object lesson here. Researchers generally agree that the main effect of TANF’s rigid, often harsh work requirements and sanctions has been to cut off basic cash assistance for large numbers of struggling mothers and children living in poverty, rather than to increase their employment.

ADVERTISEMENT
Research also indicates that TANF’s harsh restrictions and sanctions have led to an increase in the number of families with the most extreme cases of economic hardship, as many families ended up with neither cash assistance nor earnings.

Nevertheless, some policymakers favor spreading TANF-style work requirements to SNAP (food stamps), Medicaid, and rental assistance programs. And some of them claim that TANF data from states like Kansas proves that imposing harsh work requirements — and cutting off assistance for those judged not to comply — leads more parents to get jobs and thrive in the labor market. Yet such claims are often based on a fundamental misuse of data that careful researchers of all political persuasions seek to avoid.

Specifically, such claims rely on comparisons of data on the earnings of families terminated from TANF for not meeting rigid work requirements. If these families’ earnings were higher after leaving the program than before leaving, too many proponents of such sanctions claim that the work requirements must have caused the increase and benefited the very mothers and children who were cut off from assistance.

Such claims, however, are erroneous. Most people who are poor at any given time (except for older adults and people with a disability) are poor temporarily; they later get back on their feet to some extent and secure jobs or increase their earnings. This pattern holds with or without work requirements. To see if work requirements truly increase family income and well-being, we’d need to compare families subject to them with otherwise-similar families not subject to them. But the data that proponents of work requirements often cite don’t do that.

For example, let’s take a closer look at Kansas. Beginning in 2011, Then-Governor Sam Brownback and like-minded lawmakers imposed work requirements that made it much harder for families to receive cash assistance through TANF. Kansas sanctioned families that missed an appointment or couldn’t meet the requirements by taking away their TANF assistance for progressively longer periods.

Employment rates among parents subject to the new policies did not improve: About two-thirds of families removed from TANF due to work-related sanctions worked before receiving TANF, and about two-thirds worked after leaving TANF, the state’s own data show.

Moreover, the vast majority of these families struggled after leaving TANF. In the first year after leaving, 3 in 4 parents in these families either had no earnings or earnings below roughly $10,000, which is half the poverty line for a family of three.

Among the parents for whom we have data for four years after leaving TANF due to a work sanction, median earnings in the first year after leaving were just $1,601, or $133 per month — less than an average family in the Midwest spends just on natural gas and electricity in a typical month. By the fourth year, this figure rose, but only to $2,175 a year, still far below what a family needs to make ends meet. (Looking only at those in this group who succeeded in finding work, median earnings were higher — $5,873 and $10,274 in the first and fourth years, respectively — but still too low to meet basic needs.)

Rather than imposing punitive work requirements that aren’t effective, policymakers should focus on policies that boost or supplement low wages and help create jobs that pay family-sustaining earnings. They also should invest in research-based programs that help struggling adults build skills needed for available jobs, such as apprenticeship and job training programs that prepare adults for quality jobs in sectors that have strong local demand and advancement opportunities.

And for workers in low-paying jobs, policymakers should provide assistance that helps them put food on the table, keep a roof over their heads, obtain needed health care, and afford things like child care that are often necessary for work to be possible in the first place.

Tazra Mitchell is a senior policy analyst and LaDonna Pavetti, Ph.D. is vice president for Family Income Support Policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.