How work requirements unraveled the threads of our social safety net

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) recently refused to vote to pass the Build Back Better Act, but the senator has long stood in opposition to the act’s proposal to expand the child tax credit’s renewal because it lacks a firm set of work requirements for aid.   

However, work requirements have a spotty and ineffective history and aren’t right for America’s present or future. Work requirements speak to the American mantra that you ‘can’t get something for nothing,’ an axiom of conservative governance that defined the post-Ronald Reagan era for both parties. The Great Depression and America’s collective response, however, gives us an alternative mantra: ‘We’re in this together.’   

Before work requirements, there was Aid to Dependent Children, a part of the New Deal program’s Social Security Act, which was born in 1935 from the mass hardships of economic depression. The federal aid package was a universal basic income for Americans, young and old. 

To be sure, the program was not perfect. In practice, it wasn’t exactly universal and wasn’t applied equally because it was infused with racism, elitism and undoubtedly other forms of prejudice that limited and skewed its effectiveness. Yet, it aimed for universal support. 

Conservatives have attacked Social Security since its inception, particularly the universal aid to America’s senior citizens. George W. Bush’s failed 2005 attempt to partially privatize Social Security marks the latest salvo on that front.

But it took a Democrat to kill the universal basic income for young Americans. President Bill Clinton’s tilt rightward repealed Aid to Dependent Children and replaced it with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families in 1997.

A needy family’s temporary assistance depended on work requirements. The Clinton reforms effectively introduced a legal distinction between two classes of poor Americans: those deemed deserving and those deemed undeserving. Who deserved temporary aid? Able-bodied workers. Americans who couldn’t or didn’t work were on their own. 

The New Deal idea of universal aid to all members of the nation was over. Clinton nearly killed it. Now Manchin wants to make sure it doesn’t rear its head again.   

But the idea of universal aid hasn’t died easily. The pandemic, its economic upheavals and the infusions of universal government aid over the past 20 months breathed life into an idea born of hard times. Plus, a progressive left led by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and representatives like Alexandra Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.) gave voice to the idea of universal aid in the now-endangered expanded child tax credit. 

Work requirements didn’t start with Clinton, however. 

Work requirements for aid are rooted in the struggles of class and ideas in 18th and 19th century England. The New Poor Laws of 1834 cemented the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor.

Karl Polanyi’s classic text, “The Great Transformation,” details how English authorities in cahoots with business interests forced peasants off their traditional lands and into labor markets. Polanyi identifies Joseph Townsend as one of the key thinkers of the day who lent his voice to the market’s advance against the peasants. Townsend reframed economics in biological terms, introducing hunger as a positive motivator and opposing any state aid for the poor. 

Work requirements are rooted in this cruel use of hunger to motivate workers to get jobs 

Manchin’s work requirements would have been a little different. They would have ended up shafting the poorest kids, leveraging their vulnerability and turning their empty stomachs into a few saved dollars. 

However, the evidence is clear. Work requirements are ineffective. They’ve had negative consequences in other policy arenas, like when able-bodied stay-at-home mothers on aid with newborn children were pushed prematurely into jobs before their kids were ready. The results were negative for child health, mental acuity and overall wellbeing. Work requirements also don’t rehabilitate the unemployed or help fulfill their goals of long-term financial stability.

Research by the nonpartisan Urban Institute shows that extending the child tax credit beyond 2021 would slash the child poverty rate by 40 percent. Not passing the legislation will allow 10 million American kids to fall deeper into poverty.

This is ultimately a values question. Do we push for hunger economics, or do we champion investments in our families with children? The answer is simple.   

Work requirements are a tool to drive people into the labor market and limit a policy’s cost, which is based on narrow, individualist economic values. Alleviating child poverty, lessening child hunger and creating a secure future for more kids through the expanded child tax credit is an investment in America’s future. 

Jacob L. Stump is a senior professional lecturer in DePaul University’s department of international studies where he teaches international political economy and researches the production of social inequality. Jacob is also a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.   

Tags Bernie Sanders Bill Clinton Child tax credit Federal assistance in the United States Joe Manchin Joe Manchin Labor relations Poverty Poverty in the United States Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Universal Basic Income Welfare Welfare economics

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