Karen Fratti
April 16, 2018 9:18 am
Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images

Earlier this year, the Trump administration floated the idea of mandating work requirements for people who get social benefits, and this week, it took action. On Tuesday, Trump’s plan to reduce poverty went into action after he signed an executive order called “Reducing Poverty in America and Promoting Opportunity and Economic Mobility ” though experts are torn about how effective that plan can be.

According to the New York Times, the order is “directed at any program that provides means-tested assistance or other assistance that provides benefits to people, households or families that have low incomes,”and orders those agencies to start looking into its current work requirements for aid and propose any additional, stronger requirements, to “find savings,” which really means to make as many cuts as humanly possible, and also gives states a little more authority when it comes to how they want to run their welfare programs. Within 90 days, they have to come up with more ideas about how to impose stricter work requirements, possibly drug test applicants, and find things they can cut. It’s basically taking a hatchet to our existing welfare programs. The order read:

So, the ambitiously titled executive order isn’t exactly a new policy…yet. It’s a directive for any agency that provides benefits to American people to get a little leaner, and it’s a clear sign that fiscally conservative Republicans are getting what they wanted out of a Trump presidency.

If you’ve been wondering why some establishment Republican lawmakers stuck with Trump through his most racist, bigoted, impetuous moments this past year, directives like this one are exactly that reason.

Politics aside, this will have a very real impact on peoples’ quality of life. If you’re a recipient of food assistance, low-income housing subsidies, or Medicaid, it’s going to get a little tougher to get them (as if they weren’t so difficult to begin with). A lot of things in the order were already enacted earlier this year: Trump has given waivers to state governors to start enforcing tougher work requirements, and told the Department of Health and Human Services to start digging into its books to “find savings.” For the first time, according to CNN, certain Medicaid recipients have had to work for the very first time under a Trump administration to receive their health benefits.

Republicans call food benefits, housing subsidies, and health care “entitlement” programs, as if it were a bad thing to give someone help who needs it. On paper, and at least with the way Trump and his people talk about it, it might make sense that someone should have to work to receive housing subsidies or that drug users shouldn’t get “food stamps” (they’re really debit cards preloaded with funds) if they can afford to support their addiction.

But poverty is more complicated than just whether or not someone has a job or an addiction. Kids of drug users depend on those benefits; You can’t use an EBT card at a liquor store; Not everyone who is able bodied can work. A lot of our benefit programs are not cost effective for the government, and it’s not because we give “too much,” but because we don’t actually address people’s needs to really help them out of poverty.

Research shows that work requirements for welfare don’t work. In reality, most people who receive benefits are already working, as we’ve previously reported here. If they aren’t holding down jobs, a lot of able-bodied people who receive benefits have mental health issues, criminal records that make it hard to get hired, or family situations that make it hard to work full time.

There are other solutions to making assistance programs work. Simply raising the minimum wage so that people don’t have to work two jobs to feed their family is a good idea. Reforming the criminal justice system so that a young person with a criminal record isn’t barred from working a fair-paying job for the rest of their life is another. Or making sure people can afford child and elder care — whether that’s through tax breaks or other benefits — is another way to help them stay in the workforce and care for their families.

Cutting benefits and imposing draconian work requirements to eat, sleep inside, or get health care is just not the way. But this is the future Republicans (and some Democrats, too) apparently want to see.

Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow with the nonpartisan Urban Institute, who has studied food assistance programs and other government entitlements, told the New York Times that the Trump plan is a “little bit of a solution in search of a problem.” She added, “The administration is reflecting a larger narrative that many low-income individuals avoid work — but there’s just not a lot of data to support that position. Many of these people have significant barriers to working full time.”

So for the next 90 days, federal agencies will be looking for problems that they can pretend to solve with food, housing, and health care benefit programs. In the meantime, expect mostly Republican states to start imposing new work requirements and other obstacles for benefit recipients instead of actually working to close the wealth gap. Be sure to write to your lawmakers and tell them that work requirements and cutting benefits for people aren’t great ways to do that.

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