What Republican Work Requirements in the Debt Ceiling Bill Would Do
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) speaks during a news conference with House Republicans outside the U.S. Capitol on March 11, 2021 in Washington, DC. Credit - Drew Angerer—Getty Images
House Republicans passed a debt ceiling bill last week with a provision to enact new work requirements for those seeking federal assistance, claiming the measure would help cut federal spending.
Although the bill is unlikely to become law, it would require millions of low-income Americans who receive food stamps and health insurance from the federal government to work longer hours in order to qualify for benefits. The proposed provision is among several demands Republicans are making in exchange for raising the nation’s borrowing limit for about one year.
House Republicans say that the work requirements would reduce government spending and increase employment, but some economists are skeptical that they will result in significant savings for the federal government. “It’s going to cost a ton of money to implement these work requirements,” says Lily Roberts, acting vice president for inclusive economy at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning policy institute. “They are going to have to hire hundreds of bureaucrats to manage the process of documenting all of those work requirements now.”
Republicans have not budged in their refusal to raise the debt limit unconditionally. Pressure is mounting on President Joe Biden and lawmakers to reach an agreement to raise or suspend the debt limit, with the Treasury Department warning on Monday that the U.S. could run out of money to pay its bills as early as June 1, a few weeks earlier than expected. Soon after the Treasury’s announcement, the President extended an offer to meet House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, reversing his previous stance to not negotiate with Republicans.
Read More: Previous Debt Ceiling Fights Offer Clues to How This One Will End
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), a nonpartisan agency, said last week that the stricter work requirements proposed by the House GOP would reduce federal spending by $120 billion over the next decade, a small portion of the roughly $4.8 trillion in savings the bill would generate. About 600,000 Americans would lose health insurance, while about 275,000 Americans a month would lose access to food stamps, the CBO said.
Under the GOP package, childless, able-bodied adults ages 18 to 55 could get food stamps for only three months out of every three years unless they are employed at least 20 hours a week or meet other criteria. Currently, that mandate applies to those ages 18 to 49, though it has been suspended during the COVID-19 public health emergency.
The Republican debt ceiling package would also require certain adult Medicaid recipients to work, perform community service, or participate in an employment program for at least 80 hours per month or earn a certain minimum monthly income. It would apply to those ages 19 to 55, but not those who are pregnant, parents of dependent children, those who are physically or mentally unfit for employment or enrolled in education or in substance abuse programs, among other exceptions.
For many Americans, the new work requirements “could make the situation worse,” says Claudia Sahm, an economist and senior fellow at the Jain Family Institute. “The people who would lose their benefits because of a work requirement are some of the most vulnerable adults,” she says. “It’s often homeless people who weren’t working before, or people who’ve faced serious barriers to work that are the ones that will lose their benefits.”
Rep. Matt Gaetz, a member of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, is one of the lawmakers who called publicly for tougher, longer work requirements for the recipients of food stamps and Medicaid. “I don’t think hard-working Americans should be paying for all the social services for people who could make a broader contribution and instead are couch potatoes,” he said at a news conference last month.
Despite these claims, economists warn that the government can incur additional costs when low-income people lose access to federal benefits, particularly access to health care. “If folks lose Medicaid, it becomes an issue of uncompensated care,” Roberts says. “The government will pick up those costs often in another way.”
Economists who oppose the work requirements often point to past examples as evidence that work requirements for welfare are ineffective. When Arkansas introduced a work requirement for Medicaid in 2018, about 18,000 people—nearly a quarter of those subject to the mandate—lost coverage over about 10 months before it was struck down in court. Some beneficiaries who had jobs were dropped because they were unaware of the requirement or were not able to report their hours to the state agency.
Still, a handful of GOP-led states have been quietly advancing their own work requirements. Kansas lawmakers on Thursday voted largely along party lines to override Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto of a bill that puts new limits on state residents enrolled in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as SNAP. The new law, set to take effect in July, tightens work requirements for older Kansans to keep or qualify for SNAP benefits, extending the age limit of those legally considered to be able-bodied adults without dependents from 18-49 to 18-59. As a result, most food assistance recipients ages 50-59 will soon need to work at least 30 hours per week or attend mandatory job training to qualify.
Even if work requirements for federal aid do not make it in the final debt limit bill, Republicans are likely to keep pushing the issue, says Matt Weidinger, a senior fellow at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. “I have no doubt this will come up again in future debt limit bills or reauthorization bills,” he says. “The federal government is going to be searching for ways to come up with policies that cut the costs of some of these programs.”