Report: Work-hours test proposals are punitive and harmful to working people

“Heavy-handed and punitive work tests for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and Medicaid will do little to nothing to boost employment for low-wage workers,” said Economic Policy Institute (EPI) Research Director Josh Bivens. “If policymakers were acting in good faith and actually wanted to increase stable employment opportunities for these workers, they would instead consider policies that aim to make work pay better and that provide supports such as paid leave and child care.”

As the federal government and many state legislators debate instituting work-hours tests of programs like SNAP and Medicaid, Bivens and Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Shawn Fremstad evaluated the likely outcomes of imposing such tests in a new paper, and found that such measures are “excessively rigid and seem designed to maximize failure rather than to help working-class people succeed.”

“SNAP and Medicaid provide a basic floor of protection that helps ensure that all families, including ones with workers in low-paying and often volatile occupations, have access to decent food and health care,” said Fremstad. “Depriving working people of those basic protections would do nothing to help them find work. We should strengthen that floor, rather than weaken it with punitive and burdensome tests that seem designed to fail workers.”

Specific conclusions from the paper include:

  • SNAP and Medicaid are already largely worker-assistance programs. For example, more than 14.8 million workers received assistance from Medicaid in 2016.
  • Recent proposals for introducing new work tests for these programs are punitive and would actually put barriers in front of recipients looking for stable work (such as involuntarily underemployed workers seeking more hours of work), rather than helping recipients conduct effective job searches.
  • Strict monthly work tests (which revoke benefits after just one month of failure to meet work requirements) ignore the reality that labor markets for low-wage workers exhibit lots of “churn” and erratic hours. This churn would leave far too many workers vulnerable to failing these work tests in a given month. Churn and instability of hours are outcomes of policy failures (such as the failure to provide paid family and sick leave) and employers’ power to demand that workers submit to last-minute scheduling and other unfair practices, not of some lack of motivation on the part of workers.
  • While the work-hours tests often could be met in theory by undertaking work or job training, current proposals (such as the House-passed farm bill) provide grossly inadequate funding for job-training programs. If half of recipients not meeting the work-hours test in a month tried to seek training, the House farm bill would provide enough resources for those recipients to have just one meeting with a job counselor and attend one job club.
  • Heavy-handed and punitive work tests for SNAP and Medicaid will do little to nothing to boost the employment possibilities for low-wage workers. Policymakers seeking more effective ways to boost stable employment should reject work tests and instead consider policies that aim to make work pay better and that provide work supports such as paid leave and child care.
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