If we called the war in Afghanistan a “forever war,” what should we call the war on poverty? What do we call more than half a century of policies and programs which replaced higher rates of workforce participation — the surest, most sustainable path to the middle class — with higher rates of dependency?
We should call it the war on work.
My colleagues and I at the Foundation for Government Accountability have written dispatches from the frontlines of this war for years. But, frankly, America’s current worker shortage, massive welfare expansions, and inflation have forced policymakers to take more seriously our warnings about these forces since before the COVID-19 pandemic.
We’ve been flashing the “check engine” light on the American economy for years. It’s time to finally look into the underlying problem. It’s also time to plan for the next big battle in the war on work — the use and abuse of no-good-cause exemptions from the work requirement in food stamps.
First, how did we get here? How could a country with an economy defined not by a particular product or crop but by its work ethic run out of workers?
It happened, as Ernest Hemingway wrote about going bankrupt, “gradually, then suddenly.”
Since the federal government erected the scaffolding of the modern welfare state during the Great Society of the 1960s, we have gradually, layer by layer, built a structure that prioritizes goods in the short term over the long-term good of their recipients.
Food stamps, for example, is no longer a supplemental nutrition assistance program. With a work requirement riddled with waivers and benefits which far exceed average food expenditures, food stamps have become a back-door universal basic income.
Medicaid never had a work requirement. At first, this made sense. It was built to provide long-term health care coverage only to children and individuals with long-term health care needs that would keep them from working.
But we have expanded Medicaid to cover millions of able-bodied Americans without reforming it to reflect this change in its enrollees’ capacity and need for work.
Similarly, public housing has always provided rooms to live in for some but, without an effective work requirement, room to grow for none.
Cash welfare, as the focus of the major welfare reform passed during the Clinton administration in 1996, is the exception that proves the rule. Its work requirement and lifetime benefit limit mask most of its remaining deficiencies.
But its success hasn’t lit the path for national reform in other programs. Instead, it shines a spotlight on our failures to replicate it.
Instead, our expansions of food stamps, Medicaid and public housing have gradually coincided with a steady decline in our national workforce participation rate for decades.
Then, with the economic disruptions and welfare expansions during the pandemic, the worker shortage came to a head suddenly.
In distributing stimulus checks, increasing and extending unemployment benefits, increasing food stamp benefits by 25%, expanding child tax credits, prohibiting evictions, pausing student loan payments, prohibiting the removal of ineligible able-bodied Medicaid enrollees and suspending already-limited work requirements, our good intentions have disconnected tens of millions of Americans from the benefit they need most — work.
And the massive increase in spending and debt does not reflect the whole or true cost of this approach. Americans not working are Americans losing skills and falling further behind as we sever them from their own communities and their own futures.
Unfortunately, another battle in the war on work looms on the horizon — no-good-cause exemptions in food stamps. Three months after the public health emergency expires the work requirement for able-bodied adults without dependents on food stamps will return.
Or will it?
State agencies are allowed to exempt up to 12% of enrollees from the work requirement without providing any cause. These no-good-cause exemptions accumulate every year. And, with a suspended work requirement, states haven’t had to use them so stockpiles have built up which will allow states to effectively suspend the work requirement for months longer.
Even if states don’t expand their previous abuse of geographic waivers, these exemptions could gut this otherwise promising way out of the worker shortage.
If policymakers — and the public — want to win it and beat back the growing goliath of dependency, they must understand this challenge and push back against this bureaucratic maneuver.
This is the next big battle in the war on work.
• Scott Centorino is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Government Accountability.