In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed a historic welfare reform bill, saying it gave us “a chance we haven’t had before to break the cycle of dependency that has existed for millions and millions of our fellow citizens, exiling them from the world of work. It gives structure, meaning and dignity to most of our lives.”
That chance came in the form of work requirements for able-bodied adults between ages 18 and 50. The bill stated that to retain food stamps, recipients had to work, train, or volunteer for a minimum of 20 hours per week or they’d lose the benefit.
It wasn’t the bill Clinton wanted, but since he had campaigned on welfare reform and vetoed the Republican Congress’s first two attempts, he wanted a deal and he signed it. His administration then promptly issued guidance that allowed states to take advantage of loopholes to avoid adhering to the reform. The Obama administration extended those and today 33 states and the District of Columbia ignore the work requirement, either in part or in whole.
Arkansas initially took advantage of the Obama administration waivers. Gov. Asa Hutchinson allowed the waiver to expire, and the Arkansas Department of Human Services to begin applying the requirement to childless, able-bodied adults on January 1, 2016. Since that time, the results have not been fire and brimstone coming from the sky, dogs and cats living together, earthquakes, floods, or mass hysteria, to paraphrase a trio of doctors. Rather, the results have been quite good, especially for those who had to start adhering to the requirements and for whom the rule was designed to help.
Early Results of the Work Requirement Are Promising
The Arkansas Departments of Human Services and of Workforce Services combined forces, tracking more than 25,000 able-bodied adults who left welfare after the work requirement was reapplied. It was the first state to track all the individuals cycling off welfare and to do so for two years. Rather than sending people spiraling further into poverty, those who left saw their income triple by the end of the second year.
Most would call that breaking the cycle of dependency. It may have taken a second Arkansan to finish what another Arkansan started then promptly abandoned––this time on the state level––but having more people making more money and living better while decreasing state budgets and increasing tax revenue would generally seem to be a good thing.
Unless, apparently, that same work requirement were applied to another program––say, one like Medicaid. Then we’re back to partisanship, fire and brimstone, dogs and cats living together, and mass hysteria.
Granted, the fact that more than 18,000 people have lost coverage isn’t good. But, as Bruno Showers, with Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, put it, “Most people don’t think about their health care very much until there’s a major emergency.”
Government Health Welfare Doesn’t Change Outcomes
Over here on Earth 1, though, it does seem kind of important, regardless of how boring the headlines are. If a policy about food stamps can be used to entice capable individuals to better themselves, surely a policy about insurance is even more enticing. Especially since insurance is seemingly lower on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, if the internet is to be believed.
It’s true that this is a little more of a nudge than small-government types usually go for, but as of late we are having conversations about how policy affects actual lives and not just pocketbooks.
With Tucker Carlson’s recent critique of the “elites” still a source of conversation about such politics and policy, it’s worth remembering Carlson’s observation: “In countries around the world — France, Brazil, Sweden, the Philippines, Germany, and many others — voters are suddenly backing candidates and ideas that would have been unimaginable just a decade ago. These are not isolated events. What you’re watching is entire populations revolting against leaders who refuse to improve their lives.”
While there are reasonable responses to the implied need to do something, voters don’t always want to hear those responses. (For an example of this, remember that they elected Donald Trump president.) However, that something need not be the addition of new handouts.
Maybe there are solutions in the form of negatives, specifically negatives that encourage work and advancement. If policy can be used for positive ends, work requirements are proving to be an example of such policies. If nothing else, if you still believe in the promise of the American Dream and upward mobility, they’re worth trying on a larger scale.
Dignity Should Transcend the Partisan Divide
I know, I know, President Trump is on board with these changes, which means some chunk of us has to be automatically against them. Let go of the narrative and think about your fellow citizens, though. If it crashes and burns, the work requirement for Medicaid can be undone and the president gets a failure noted on his permanent record. “Trump sends poor people to die” is a good headline if you hate the guy.
If it succeeds, is it really so terrible that a Republican who seemed to come from the left side of the flank is finally making good on a promise made by a Democrat ostensibly from the right side? The headlines aren’t as good, as there isn’t the requisite bleeding, but citizens striving to (and succeeding at) improving their lot in life is undeniably positive.
Giving structure, meaning, and dignity to lives shouldn’t be split by the partisan divide. It should be an opportunity to come together and try to lift our neighbors up, and not give them a handout, regardless of who sits in the White House.