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Why Democrats Should Support a Work Requirement for Welfare

The Hill

There are two key reasons why it is critical there be a work requirement before able-bodied individuals receive welfare: (1) It discourages those who can find a job from going on welfare and consuming limited resources and (2) it helps those who have been on welfare regain the sense of dignity that comes with work and being able to provide for themselves and their families. So why are most Democrats, and especially progressives, so dead set against a work requirement?

Democrats weren’t always so critical of work-for-welfare (sometimes referred to as “workfare”) proposals. In 1996, Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), which included a provision requiring work to receive cash benefits.

The law replaced the primary cash-grant program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). According to the History Channel’s website: “TANF added work requirements for aid, shrinking the number of adults who could qualify for benefits. This legislation also created caps for how long and how much aid a person could receive, as well as instituting harsher punishments for recipients who did not comply with the requirements.”

Did Democrats shun this bill, which was signed and praised by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat? Some did.

But 23 of the Senate’s 47 Democrats voted for the legislation, including … wait for it … Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), who proclaimed on the Senate floor, “The culture of welfare must be replaced with the culture of work.”

Unfortunately, two decades of progressive efforts at the state and federal levels, along with pandemic-related welfare expansions, have largely undermined the work requirements.

Republicans in Congress are trying to reestablish workfare, but the congenital flip-flopper in the White House is calling that one of the GOP’s “wacko notions.” In fact, it’s the most sensible thing lawmakers can do.

The biggest challenge to welfare programs is finding a way to separate those who don’t need welfare – because they are able-bodied and employers are struggling to find employees – from those who do.

Welfare programs compete with other valid claims on government funds, so the funding is always limited. Ensuring those who don’t need help stay out of the program means there is more money and time available to provide assistance for those who do need help.

The program I’m most familiar was sponsored by the American Institute for Full Employment, which began in part of Oregon. Social workers told those seeking to enroll in welfare they would have to go to work.

Those who ran Oregon’s pilot program said that once the work requirement was made clear, about a third of the applicants would leave, saying if they had to work, they’d find their own job. Another third needed help finding a job. And another third faced challenges, such as women who had suffered from domestic violence, had a substance abuse issue or had just given birth. Those individuals could avoid the work requirement for a few months while they addressed their challenges, but then they had to go to work.

The New York Times even ran a story about how these social workers were finally getting to their “drawer cases,” people with severe challenges that would take a lot of time to help.

A unique aspect of this program was that it partnered with employers who were desperate to find workers — as many employers are today.

Most were entry-level jobs, which meant the employee could be quickly trained on the job (the best kind of training). The state welfare program covered most of the cost of the new employee for a few months, giving the employer time to see if the employee would work out. If so, the employer could then hire the person.

It was a win-win-win: for the individual, the employer and the state.

The second benefit from work is it can help longtime welfare recipients regain a since of dignity and self-worth.

If progressives are shaking their heads at this notion, it may help to know that Karl Marx agreed. As psychologist and democratic socialist Eric Fromm explains Marx’s concept of human nature, “Labor is the self-expression of man, an expression of his individual physical and mental powers. In this process of genuine activity man develops himself, becomes himself.”

I saw several letters sent to the sponsors of the Oregon plan from people who had been on welfare for years. Both they and their families had lost confidence in them. Getting a job and bringing home a paycheck helped restore some of that confidence.

But they needed a push to get back in the workforce. Workfare provided that push.

Democrats and the media routinely dismiss efforts to link welfare benefits, including Medicaid, to work requirements, claiming most of the recipients already work. If that’s true, what’s the problem?

No one is trying to force workfare on those whose age or mental or physical disabilities keep them from working. But that’s not most welfare recipients. We need more people leaving welfare and entering the workforce. As Joe Biden once said, “The culture of welfare must be replaced with the culture of work.”