House Republicans’ Work Requirements “Are Not About Work”

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They are “about a commitment…to harm the poor,” says sociologist Matthew Desmond.

Princeton sociologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Matthew Desmond’s latest book, the New York Times best-seller Poverty, By America, explores why poverty is so prevalent—and persistent—in the richest nation on Earth. We spoke about his excellent book not long ago, but with the House Republicans demanding new work requirements for Medicaid and food-stamp recipients in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, I figured Desmond would have some thoughts.

There’s certainly little evidence that work requirements achieve their goal—that is, if the goal is to improve people’s lives. But this is a charitable view of Republican intent. If their goal is to push needy people off the rolls, then sure. And if the goal is to reduce the deficit—and the debt-ceiling bill has a bunch of provisions that would do the opposite—there are ways to do it that don’t target and scapegoat America’s most vulnerable. I reached out to Desmond to talk about these things and more. As always, our chat has been edited for length and clarity.         

What was your first thought when you heard the Republicans were seeking to impose new work requirements for food stamps and Medicaid?

That it doesn’t have anything to do with work. When Arkansas imposed work requirements on Medicaid in 2018, I believe 18,000 people lost their health insurance and the state did not witness any growth in employment. Work requirements are not about work; they’re about a commitment by the modern Republican Party to harm the poor, really. It’s hard to say it any other way. If we’re going to balance the budget and tackle the deficit, why is it always the poor who have to pay that price, especially given all the tax avoidance and shenanigans that we experience today?

As the public sees it, there are three questions. First, are work requirements reasonable? Second, what’s the goal? And third, does the policy achieve the goal? To get food stamps now, so-called able-bodied adults under 50, without young children, have to spend 20 hours a week doing paid or unpaid work or work training. If you presented that to the average person on the street, they might say, “That sounds pretty reasonable.” But what does it look like for the people in need of aid?

So many of of the aid recipients are working already, and many are working in ways that aren’t recognized as work. One of the things that is completely baffling and frustrating to me is how we ignore the caretaking work of raising kids and also caring for the old, and render that work invisible with respect to these requirements.

I would love a public conversation about the incentives to work. You know, often these low-wage jobs are grueling and you have no power and your pay hasn’t gone up in years. These conversations seem just out of touch with the everyday experiences of folks in jobs like that.

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