Issue #3: Work Requirements in Public Benefit Programs

Some policymakers are looking to expand or add work requirements in TANF, SNAP, housing, and Medicaid programs.

The big picture: The Trump administration has expressed interest in expanding “work requirements,” provisions in federal benefits programs mandating enrollees be employed, in job training, searching for a job, or in community engagement. These provisions have been part of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, or cash assistance) program since welfare reform in the 1990s, and have been part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called food stamps) since the 1970s. In December 2018, federal lawmakers reauthorized the Farm Bill that renewed SNAP and rejected expanded work requirements that were in the House proposal released in April. In addition, some states have passed or are considering legislation that tightens work requirements on beneficiaries. For example, the Ohio General Assembly passed a bill in December that would require the state to verify eligibility for Medicaid and SNAP on a quarterly basis instead of annually.

The Trump administration is expected to release a proposed federal rule that would limit states’ ability to waive existing work requirements in SNAP, a fairly common practice in states with a struggling job market or high unemployment.

Supporters say having a job should be a requirement of receiving public benefits and expanding requirements promotes a culture of work. Opponents express multiple concerns, and believe that requirements often encourage people to take low-wage jobs rather than earning credentials and finding a job with a livable wage. They also contend that the vast majority of those receiving benefits are already working or looking for work, and these requirements are burdensome. Research on the effectiveness of work requirements in terms of helping people find and keep employment have been mixed, but largely indicate that when these provisions have led to employment, it has been short-term. (A comprehensive review of work requirements in SNAP, TANF, and Medicaid by state is available here.)

On the horizon: With Democrats taking control of the House of Representatives, sweeping changes to public benefit programs through legislative action are unlikely. From a regulatory perspective, the Trump administration has expressed interest in expanding work requirements. In late December 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed regulation that would inhibit states’ ability to issue waivers for existing work requirements in SNAP, a fairly common practice in states with a struggling job market or high unemployment. This supports President Trump’s 2018 Executive Order instructing federal agencies with relevant programs to explore implementing work requirements, which could have implications for SNAP, TANF, housing assistance programs, and other public benefits. It’s unclear how long this could take to work itself through the federal bureaucracy, but it could make it harder for some people to get or keep SNAP benefits. Similarly, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development may expand the Moving to Work program, which allows housing authorities to use Housing Choice Vouchers to test policies like work requirements. Regardless of the federal direction, many decisions about to whom work requirements apply and for how long are made at the state and local level and vary widely by program and location. We’ll be watching to see if and how state and local policymakers follow the Trump administration’s lead in expanding work requirements in public benefit programs and how that affects enrollment.