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Forget work requirements for the poor — guarantee them a job instead

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A few days before ordering airstrikes on Syria, President Trump dropped a bomb at home: He signed an executive order to require recipients of federal aid — including food stamps, Medicaid, and housing subsidies — to work. 

To some, it is a solution looking for a problem. After all, more than half of recipients of federal aid programs like Medicaid already work. And the vast majority live in households where someone is earning an income. Of those who don’t work, the most commons reasons are illness, disability, school attendance, and caregiving for younger or older family members.

Still, I actually think there’s a case to make that Trump didn’t go far enough.

{mosads}We idolize work in the United States. Alone among developed countries, we don’t require employers to offer paid vacationsick leave, or parental leave. We measure our well-being in terms of GDP. (And how many people even know what that means?) And despite some of our best efforts to get a little more creative, the go-to question at dinner parties and social functions across the land is still about how we make our money.

For all our talk, though, we don’t put our money where our mouth is.

The official unemployment rate is low these days, but that obscures the fact that far too many Americans remain underemployed. Many work part time when they’d like to be full-time, earn minimum wage when they should be earning a living wage, or quit the job market altogether because an illness, disability, or criminal record makes it essentially impossible to find suitable employment. And that includes many recipients of Medicaid, food stamps, and housing subsidies.

It’s right to be against a work requirement for these people, but it’s not enough.

Many employed federal aid recipients would love to have better jobs with better incomes. They’d love to move from part-time, unpredictable positions — like those in the restaurant or retail industries — to something that offers full-time, reliable income. They’d love a job with real opportunity to support themselves and their families. And the Trump executive order does absolutely nothing for them. 

So, let’s up the ante. Instead of creating new paper-pushing requirements for federal aid recipients who must now prove they work, let’s provide a real solution: a universal good-job guarantee for everyone who wants a job. 

Instead of stigmatizing struggling people, a jobs guarantee would do far more to lift poverty than Trump’s mean-spirited work requirement ever could. Here’s how it could work: Anyone who isn’t getting by on their current job — and that would include many recipients of federal aid — can trade it in for a new, better, and federally funded job. 

If that sounds too expensive, it isn’t. We have the resources, we just aren’t using them the right way. According to research I’ve done for the National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, knocking our military budget back to pre-Trump levels would free up resources to create jobs for 600,000 elementary school teachers, or 1 million jobs building new infrastructure.

And repealing the $2.3 trillion Trump tax cuts, which overwhelmingly benefit the wealthy and corporations, could pay for nearly 3 million teachers or 4 million infrastructure workers. We could put people to work building and creating things we actually need.

If coupled with other policy changes — like replacing the minimum wage with a living wage — a jobs guarantee wouldn’t just lift workers out of poverty. It could also improve our education system and help repair our infrastructure, which badly needs it.

Until then, it’s a curious situation we find ourselves in: touting the benefits of hard work on the one hand, but being too cheap to pay for it.

Lindsay Koshgarian, a federal budgeting expert, directs the National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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