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News from EPI Work requirements in SNAP and Medicaid won’t increase employment—but they will harm millions of Americans

Proposals to expand and intensify work-hour tests in SNAP and allow similar tests in Medicaid are being debated in Congress and in state legislatures. In a new paper, EPI Research Director Josh Bivens and Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Shawn Fremstad evaluate the likely outcomes of imposing such tests, and find that they are excessively rigid and seem designed to maximize failure rather than to help working-class people succeed. By ignore the realities of the labor market, work requirements will not meaningfully increase the employment rate of these workers—but they will harm millions of Americans, including millions of people who are working in low-paying and volatile occupations.

“Heavy-handed and punitive work tests for SNAP and Medicaid will do little to nothing to boost employment for low-wage workers,” said 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.”

Importantly, most SNAP and Medicaid beneficiaries are children, people older than 65, or people with disabilities. Meanwhile, most nonelderly, nondisabled adults who receive SNAP and Medicaid are actually working—and that share is increasing over time. If beneficiaries are not working, it is largely due to the inability to find decent work, not the motivation of workers themselves. Recognizing that food security and access to decent health care are themselves important work supports, it is clear that work requirements for SNAP and Medicaid would actually put barriers in front of recipients looking for stable work, rather than help recipients conduct effective job searches.

“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.”

Bivens and Fremstad argue that strict monthly work tests, which revoke benefits after just one month of failure to meet work requirements, ignore the realities of employment for low-wage workers. The labor market for low-wage workers exhibits high amounts of “churn” and erratic hours, which would leave far too many workers vulnerable to failing these work tests in a given month. Moreover, while work requirements could in theory be met by undertaking job training, current proposals (such as the House-passed farm bill) provide grossly inadequate funding for job-training programs.