Commentary: Work requirements won’t solve labor shortages and do more harm than good

Tribune Content Agency

For decades, Republican lawmakers have sought to deny benefits to people experiencing poverty unless they can prove they are either working or actively looking for work. Now those efforts have been ramped into overdrive.

As part of their terms for raising the nation’s debt limit and avoiding default, Republicans in Congress are pushing to add or expand work requirements for programs including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, and Medicaid.

In advocating for these changes, Republican lawmakers are quick to cite the tight labor market and worker shortages. The idea is: “We need workers now; how about making the work for benefits?” It’s a disingenuous argument because the right has consistently sought work requirements regardless of the state of the labor market.

Moreover, a 2021 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research refuted the notion that work requirements in SNAP have a meaningful effect on labor supply. In fact, it found the opposite, that “eliminating work requirements would likely transfer more resources to low-income adults than other programs targeting the same population.”

Another study found that work requirements in SNAP had no effects on employment but led to a 53 percent decline in program participation. So, they do have an impact — just not a good one.

As Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell recently wrote, “Medicaid work requirements are a solution in search of a problem. Worse than that, they will create significant new problems, particularly among the vulnerable population the policy is supposed to help.”

In 2018, as part of a national effort by the Trump administration to get states to condition eligibility for the health insurance program on work, Arkansas implemented work requirements in Medicaid. More than 18,000 beneficiaries lost their health coverage until a federal judge halted the program in 2019.

Work requirements don’t lead people into jobs. They cause people struggling with poverty to lose critical benefits because of the paperwork required to fulfill work requirements or receive an exemption from them.

The reality is that millions of workers rely on programs like Medicaid and SNAP because they are paid low wages, have unpredictable schedules, and lack benefits — all of which make it harder to meet the work requirements .

If lawmakers are sincere about increasing labor force participation and economic mobility among people experiencing poverty, they should pursue policies that would help them achieve this goal. State-level paid leave policies have been shown to increase labor force participation, and women with access to paid leave are 40 percent more likely to return to work after giving birth than those without it.

Affordable and accessible child care increases parents’ labor force participation. Policies that support family-sustaining wages and greater control over scheduling would go a long way toward getting people in the workforce and allowing them to stay there. Let’s invest in people and policies that create economic security, not just low-wage jobs.


(Cara Brumfield is director of income and work support at the Center for Law and Social Policy. Emily Andrews is director of education, labor, and worker justice at the Center for Law and Social Policy. This column was produced for Progressive Perspectives, a project of The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service)