Republicans Win Welfare Work Requirements in Debt Ceiling Battle
Republicans Win Welfare Work Requirements in Debt Ceiling Battle

By Ross Muscato

Within the debt ceiling debate and negotiations between President Joe Biden and the Republican-led House of Representatives, both sides were entrenched and firmly resistant to budging on the issue of work requirements to qualify for social benefits.

Changes, however, were made to welfare work requirements. And as was the case with the broader Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 bill that the House passed, 314-117, in mid-evening on May 31—it was an area in which the White House and the GOP each claimed victory.

Following the Senate approving the bill, 63-36, in a late-night vote on June 1, the act now heads to the desk of Biden.

With his signature, the president will prevent the nation from defaulting on its debt.

In the lower chamber of Congress, Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and this team won changes that would strengthen and increase work requirements in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly called Food Stamps, and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), formerly called Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

Biden held firm on Medicaid and was able to preserve the program as a social benefit that does not require a recipient to work.

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the debt ceiling at the White House in Washington on May 9, 2023. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

A YouGov poll dated Jan. 5–9, 2023, revealed that 68 percent of U.S. adults believe that welfare recipients should be required to work or be involved in job training, with 83 percent of Republicans, 64 percent of Democrats, and 61 percent of independents supporting the work mandate.

McCarthy Leads Successful Effort

McCarthy can rightly claim that on the House side, he stewarded one of the most significant debt deals and spending cuts in U.S. history, even as Biden successfully protected certain progressive priorities.

Following the House vote, McCarthy, flanked by members of his leadership team, addressed the media and explained that even though Biden would only bargain on a small area of the budget—what the speaker described as 11 percent of the total—Republicans still delivered.

“But in that 11 percent, not only did we give you the greatest savings in American history; there’s going to be people who were on welfare today that will no longer be on welfare,” said McCarthy. “They will find a job because of the work requirement.

“Their self-worth, their attitudes, are gonna change. They’re going to believe in themselves. They’re going to be able to buy a house, send their kids to college, because of the vote we took tonight.”

Presently, under SNAP regulations, an able-bodied adult who is under 50, and does not live with dependent children, cannot receive more than three months of benefits in a 36-month period unless the adult works or attends training for at least 80 hours per month. That requirement can be waived, under the direction of the state in which the recipient resides, if there is a shortage of jobs in the state.

In 2024, the Biden-McCarthy agreement would raise the work requirement age for able-bodied adults who do not live with dependent children to include those 50 to 52 years old. The following year, the requirement would increase to 54 years old. Those who would be exempt are the homeless, military veterans, and 18- to 24-year-olds who were living in foster care when they turned 18.

Also, under the Biden-McCarthy bill, the allowable exemptions a state can use to qualify people for SNAP benefits are reduced from the present level of 12 percent to 8 percent of the total caseload.

The changes have an end date of Oct. 1, 2030.

The TANF law now on the books allows states discretion in designing benefit programs. At least 50 percent of those receiving benefits must be working, but a state can reduce that minimum standard based on the percentage of caseloads it has brought down since 2005. If, for example, the state has reduced its caseloads by 10 percent since 2005, then only 40 percent of families would need to meet the threshold.

When Biden signs the bill, a new structure will be created—that the states have two years to implement—which will establish 2015 as the comparison year and will result in more states having to increase their work requirements. States can reduce the work requirement level by upping the amount of money they contribute to the benefit pool.

Biden Supports Welfare Work Requirement

Conservatives are fond of pointing to an event of late August 1996 when then-President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, a landmark welfare reform legislation that the GOP-controlled House and Senate sent to his desk.

Politics forced Clinton’s hand. He won the presidency in 1992 campaigning as a new type of Democrat, one who made welfare reform central to his leadership agenda. Yet, while in office, he gave little heed to making changes in public assistance programs but did commit considerable time and resources to a failed attempt to institute universal healthcare.

The electorate was not happy. In the 1994 midterm elections, a tsunami of Republicans—running on the unified message and promise to voters called “Contract With America” that held welfare reform as a key component—rolled to large-margin wins in the House and Senate, boosted the governorships it held by 20, and took back majorities in 20 state legislatures.

Still, Clinton had vetoed two welfare reform bills that the GOP-led Congress passed. But as the 1996 presidential election was in the homestretch, he realized that if a welfare reform bill that contained a work requirement did not happen, then most li,kely neither would his second term.

One of the members of Congress backing the legislation was a senator from Delaware named Joe Biden.

On May 23, the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute (AEI) published an article, “The White House Defender of Welfare Work Requirements,” by AEI senior fellows Angela Rachidi and Matt Weidinger, which argued for welfare work requirements and documented Biden’s support of the policy.

“Biden was one of 78 senators—including all Republicans and more than half of Democrats—who voted for the 1996 welfare reform law … when it passed in August 1996,” wrote Rachidi and Weidinger. “That law included broad new work requirements for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) welfare checks paid to low-income parents as well as food stamps issued to able-bodied adults without dependents.

“In both cases, adult recipients were expected to work, search for work, or engage in education, training, or other activities at least part time to remain eligible for benefits.”

The authors shared, from Biden’s career in Congress, his comments advocating for the work requirement, among them when the senator, in 1996, said, “Since 1987, when I first proposed an overhaul of the welfare system, I have argued that welfare recipients should be required to work.”

While liberals and progressives contended that the work requirement would result in a rise in poverty and misery and would not appreciably contribute to employment that would improve people’s lives, the evidence that mounted made a different counterargument.

“Those 1996 reforms were followed by marked increases in work and earnings and sharp declines in poverty and benefit dependence,” asserted Rachidi and Weidinger. “Writing about the impact of welfare reform in 2008, liberal poverty expert Robert Moffit wrote: ‘The findings on employment and earnings confirm the time-series evidence presented earlier, indicating consistently positive effects of welfare reform.’”

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