Last Monday in The Washington Post, Charles Lane drew attention to the need for getting work incentives right in federal policy. “The Americans with Disabilities Act…enshrines the notion that every American can and should hold a job,” he pointed out, but the Social Security Disability Insurance “creates a quasi-right not to work.”
That policy inconsistency mirrors the situation in federal welfare programs generally, especially now that the Obama Administration has taken a step against work requirements as the foundation of sound welfare policy. Just a few weeks ago, the Administration issued a directive to gut work requirements from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program—one of only three welfare programs that has any type of work requirement.
The vast majority of Americans agree that able-bodied people should be working or at least preparing for work in order to receive government assistance. While liberals have argued that work requirements are unjust and mean-spirited, it was such requirements that helped millions of people move from welfare into jobs after the 1996 welfare reform law was implemented.
TANF, which was put into place under the reform law, inserted work requirements into the largest cash assistance federal welfare program. And it was an overwhelming success. Whereas the previous four decades prior to welfare reform saw no decline in caseloads, the rolls decreased by roughly 50 percent within five years of TANF’s implementation. Poverty rates for single mothers with children (the primary beneficiaries of TANF) also declined precipitously during that time. For African Americans, child poverty dropped to its lowest level in U.S. history.
TANF’s work requirements are not onerous, either. Recipients are required to work between 20 and 30 hours a week, and “work” can mean a variety of different activities. For example, if recipients are unable to find employment, they can pursue a GED, perform community service, or complete job training activities.
Restoring work requirements in TANF and extending these requirements to additional means-tested welfare programs, including food stamps, is a crucial step toward helping those in need achieve self-sufficiency.