Work Requirements Still Don’t Work

Work requirements are based on the false notion that people who receive public assistance will, without work requirements, have no incentive to hold a job or look for work. But the research is clear that work requirements do not increase employment and income, especially in the long run, unless they are paired with investments in job search assistance, job skills training, child care assistance, and other work supports.

In fact, taking away medical, food, or housing assistance makes it harder for people to find and maintain employment. Despite this long-established research, there’s a move in Arkansas to connect work requirements to housing.

State Rep. Kendon Underwood and Sen. Ben Gilmore are co-sponsors of HB1196, which would add red tape to public housing in Arkansas by creating a stringent work requirement without any investment in supportive services.

Arkansans should by now be well-acquainted with the failure of work requirements on public programs. In 2018, more than 18,000 Arkansans lost Medicaid expansion coverage (referred to as Arkansas Works at the time) even though 97% of the population were either meeting the necessary hours worked or qualified for an exemption. There is no evidence this increased anyone’s employment or earnings, though it likely increased uncompensated care costs for hospitals by disenrolling participants who met the qualifications but couldn’t navigate the byzantine online reporting system.

Our experiment with work requirements on Medicaid was a total failure, but the negative impacts were at least mitigated because the work requirements were designed to piggyback off already-existing work requirements on other federal programs. For example, we allowed participants who were meeting work requirements on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to be exempted from similar requirements on Arkansas Works due to the redundancy and bureaucratic red tape of subjecting participants to multiple program requirements.

HB1196, in contrast, would not allow that, and it would make the requirements much stricter.

Our current work requirements on SNAP, and the requirements in our failed experiment applying them to Medicaid, applied to “Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents.” That means that adults with dependent children are exempt. HB1196 would only exempt adults with dependents 4 months or younger. Work requirements on Arkansas Works exempted older adults over 50; HB1196 would apply work requirements to participants as old as 64.

In 2018 we wrote, “Research does not show that work requirements help improve employment prospects or lift recipients who are subject to them out of poverty, and tracking participants would be a costly administrative burden for the state.” That proved to be true. The only question is whether legislators will learn from our past mistakes.