Why “Work Requirements” Don’t Work

October 9, 2023


  • “Work requirements” for public assistance don’t meet their stated objectives
  • Public assistance helps millions of Americans meet basic needs
  • Reducing the paperwork burden would be a sensible and compassionate reform

By Miles Kirkpatrick, Carolina Forward contributor

So-called “work requirements” exist for various public assistance programs in the United States. From basic food assistance, to housing subsidies, to even basic healthcare, our already-complex social safety net has an additional, complicated layer of “work requirements.” These are eligibility rules that require anyone receiving assistance to be working or in job training for at least 20 hours a week (a typical threshold, though some require more), with limited exceptions.

As federal public assistance programs like TANF, SNAP and even Medicaid are usually administered, or at least influenced, by state-level policy, state governments have a great deal of discretion in determining who qualifies for them. (See: Why is North Carolina’s Legislature Diverting Money Away from Low-Income Families?) A particularly dramatic example of a state government leveraging this power occurred in 2018, when Arkansas imposed work requirements on its Medicaid expansion population, resulting in 18,000 people losing coverage in a matter of months. North Carolina Republicans insisted on including a work requirement in any potential Medicaid expansion the state until just this year.

Significant research shows that work requirements do not “work,” in the sense that they do not increase recipient employment. Most recipients of assistance already work. Instead, they foist a heavy paperwork burden on both recipients and government agencies, which itself constitutes a significant hurdle to receiving assistance. But despite their ineffectiveness, work requirements are still appealing to some, resulting in an odd patchwork of systems of varying work requirements across the United States. Let’s look closer at North Carolina and the variety of work requirements we have in place here.

First up: SNAP. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is a food benefits program for low-income families and individuals. Approximately 41 million Americans received SNAP benefits in 2022, including 1.6 million North Carolinians. SNAP contains some general work requirements for all participants, with certain exceptions like being physically unable to work or participating in a training program, but SNAP also has heightened requirements if you are an “Able-Bodied Adult Without Dependants,” referred to as an ABAWD. Those requirements are much stricter. Instead of just participating in the SNAP Employment & Training program, ABAWD must be working or training for 80 hours a month.

Failure to meet the heightened ABAWD requirement limits individuals to only being able to claim SNAP benefits for three months in a 3-year time frame; however, some states can request waivers if their economic situation demands it. The last time North Carolina had an ABAWD waiver in place was in 2015. This year, the General Assembly attempted to prohibit North Carolina from seeking SNAP waivers.

Unlike SNAP, housing assistance is typically managed at a municipal level. The Department of Housing and Urban Development currently has a demonstration program, the Moving to Work (MTW) program, intended to give local housing authorities more flexibility to “use Federal dollars more efficiently, help residents find employment and become self-sufficient, and increase housing choices for low-income families.” In North Carolina, the Charlotte Housing Authority Inlivian is proud of their MTW work, which includes work requirements that “all non-senior, non-disabled households must work at least 20 hours per week or participate in an approved work-related activity (monitored by a Case Manager).” While Charlotte has been involved in MTW since 2007, Asheville and Robeson County both joined in 2021.

Lastly, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, program is administered at the state level. TANF provides an avenue for cash assistance funded by both the federal government and individual states, with a broad mandate to help families in need, reduce dependency, prevent out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and encourage two-parent households. The North Carolina TANF program is big on pushing people to work, starting with its state agency name: Work First. Because of TANF’s broad mandate, NC’s administration of TANF funding is allowed to go primarily to encouraging people to seek work and less to actually providing assistance. As a result, North Carolina has some of the lowest TANF benefit levels in the US.

The demand for recipients to work, whether through requirements or rhetoric, is deeply embedded in North Carolina’s welfare infrastructure. But the effectiveness of that emphasis is poor.

With SNAP, specifically the requirements for ABAWD, the post-recession reinstatement of those requirements “substantially reduced” the amount of ABAWD receiving benefits, and the most considerable reduction occurred right after the 3rd month, according to a study by the Urban Insitute. The same goes for housing work requirements and TANF. The evidence is quite clear: expanding work requirements makes it harder for people to meet basic needs without actually resulting in more people working.

Welfare policy can be complicated – if we make it so. Lecturing needy people about their work ethic, and threatening them if they do not comply, before actually helping secure their basic needs has resulted in an overly complex and ineffective patchwork system that achieves neither aim. A public assistance system that focuses on helping people in need as its first priority would greatly de-emphasize the paperwork barrier, or just eliminate it entirely, resulting in a more effective, and kinder, social safety net.

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