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Work requirements for safety-net programs are being debated during debt-ceiling talks


As the United States comes near to defaulting on its debt, Democrats and Republicans remain far apart on one issue in particular - whether to impose new or tougher work requirements for people on some forms of federal assistance. The White House came out strongly against the idea last night, accusing Republicans of trying to take food out of the mouths of hungry Americans. NPR's Jennifer Ludden joins us now.


SIMON: There are requirements that already exist for some programs, like food stamps, right?

LUDDEN: Yes, correct. Let's start with food stamps. So forty million people get them. So right now, if you're 18 to 50, you have no children and no dependents and no disability, you have to show you're working 20 hours a week. House Republicans want to raise that age limit to 55 years old. Of course, the details on this or any of the new work requirements could change during negotiations.

Another program, families that get cash assistance, what used to be called welfare - this is a tiny group, just about a million families. They are extremely poor. And basically, states currently have to show a certain share of them are working. Under the proposed requirements, the way they calculate that - trust me - it's too complicated to explain - but it would make it even tougher and mean a much higher share needed to work. I spoke with Liz Oltmans Ananat. She's an economist at Barnard College, and she says this is a group that faces a lot of barriers to getting or keeping a job.

LIZ OLTMANS ANANAT: They've recently had a death in the family. They're dealing with a mental health issue. They've had a family breakup. They've been a victim of domestic violence - a lot of folks in crisis.

SIMON: So, Jennifer, both the programs we're talking about - food stamps and cash assistance - have work requirements. What about people on Medicaid? Because right now that does not have a work requirement, does it?

LUDDEN: Exactly. This would be new for Medicaid. It would require able-bodied adults without dependents to have some work-related activity for 80 hours a month. Now where are you going to find that group of people? Analysts say it is going to be those who signed up for the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. And this is because the ACA, Obamacare, allowed able-bodied adults without dependents to get Medicaid for the first time.

SIMON: There have been debates for decades about work requirements. And Republicans often say it's a way to put more people into jobs. And they note that particularly now, it might actually help businesses who say they face a labor shortage. Could these two points come together and work?

LUDDEN: Right. You know, it makes sense. People understand this. I'm sure some people would find work. But there's been a lot of research in the decades of this debate. And, you know, it shows it's not necessarily going to be the case on a large scale. There was a real-time experiment. The Trump administration let states impose work requirements for Medicaid, and Arkansas did it for seven months in 2018. Sharon Parrott is president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. And she says, in that short time, about a quarter of people subject to those requirements in Arkansas ended up being dropped from Medicaid.

SHARON PARROTT: There wasn't any increase in employment. If that was the goal, that didn't happen. And of the people who lost coverage, lots of them actually were working or should have been exempt. But the system is just very challenging for a state to implement and for people to navigate.

LUDDEN: And she says, you know, when people lose health care coverage or other aid, it can really make it harder to get a job. You know, their health might get worse. They might even lose housing.

SIMON: Final question - Speaker McCarthy says the overall goal of this debt ceiling deal is for the U.S. government to spend less. Would stricter work requirements save money for the government?

LUDDEN: The Congressional Budget Office looked at that question for Medicaid. It found that it would save the federal government a small amount, but some of that cost would then be passed along to states. And here's an interesting thing I learned on cash assistance. States get this money through block grants, and there's lots of other things they can spend it on, right? They have, you know, workforce training programs. They can promote marriage. They can use the money to reduce teen pregnancy. And so if stricter work requirements are imposed on cash assistance, researchers worry that some states might decide it's just too complicated to give out. They would shut down cash assistance, and states could do that without giving the money back to the federal government.

SIMON: NPR's Jennifer Ludden. Thanks so much.

LUDDEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.