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House Republicans are pushing to reassert work requirements across a swath of federal welfare programs to curb wasteful spending and fill job openings in the economy.

GOP lawmakers have introduced legislation in recent weeks to prohibit state governments from easing work requirements for federally-funded welfare programs. They also want to expand the age limit from 49 to 65 at which able-bodied adults without children must work to receive benefits.

“No one’s dream is to spend their lives on government assistance,” said House Ways and Committee Chairman Jason Smith, Missouri Republican. “If we don’t get welfare right, then we run the risk of trapping people in a generational cycle of poverty that makes a government check more valuable than a job and robs them of the dignity of work.”

Republicans are pushing President Biden and the Democrat-controlled Senate to accept the changes in exchange for raising the federal debt limit.

Mr. Biden, who supported the 1990s welfare overhaul while a senator, is now firmly opposed. Democrats say that if the federal government wants to coax more people into the workforce, it can do so without putting new burdens on the poor. 

“If our goal is to address the worker shortage, our peer countries have demonstrated that guaranteed child care and paid family and medical leave substantially increase workforce participation among women,” said Rep. Richard Neal, Massachusetts Democrat. 

The odds for success for Republicans are not high, especially given that Democrats control the White House and the U.S. Senate. Even when Republicans controlled Congress and the White House under President Donald Trump, efforts to expand work requirements went nowhere. 

The center-right Foundation for Government Accountability estimates that even before the coronavirus pandemic, only 3 million out of 48.5 million eligible welfare recipients were subject to work requirements. That included individuals receiving Medicaid, public housing assistance, food stamps, and direct cash payments through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

State governments have only further relaxed work requirements since the start of COVID-19.

In 2021, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, 57% of work-eligible TANF recipients recorded zero hours of work.

That’s even though states mandate that at least 50% of families on TANF be working, searching for employment, or taking part in job training at least 30 hours a week. The figure drops to 20 hours a week for single parents with children under the age of six.

GOP lawmakers say the inconsistency is because the federal government gives states wide latitude in determining what counts as “work.” States also receive a credit toward meeting the 50% work rate if they show reductions in overall TANF caseloads.

Grant Collins, a senior vice president for workforce development at the Fedcap Group, said the credit system has at times incentivized states to skirt work requirements by inflating their caseloads.

“A state would be able to find a TANF profile case, a parent and adult working already with a child, and then bring them on the caseload by providing a very small amount of TANF for $20 or $30 a month,” said Mr. Collins.

TANF has added nearly 40,000 new recipients since 2019 — capping off at more than two million as of September 2022. Given that TANF provides cash payments of about $500 a month to recipients, the federal government sends roughly $16.5 billion to the states annually for the program.

Similar growth has occurred in the level of individuals receiving Medicaid and food stamps over the past three years.

Medicaid added 20.2 million people to its rolls between February 2020 and October 2022 alone, costing the federal government $592 billion. Meanwhile, the number of people receiving food stamps has grown by nearly 2.5 million since July 2019.

To receive food stamps, individuals without children have to be working, searching for work, or job training for at least 80 hours per month. As with TANF, states have wide latitude in determining what can be counted towards the hours.

Republicans say the 80-hour requirement is misleading because recipients can pick and choose which times of the month they engage in “work.” Instead, lawmakers want to require TANF and food stamp recipients to be engaged in work or job training at least 20 hours a week.

“The ongoing labor shortage we have experienced over the past few years has made it difficult for small businesses,” said Rep. Jake LaTurner, Kansas Republican who is backing legislation to expand work requirements. “These commonsense bills will help able-bodied adults re-enter the workforce and end their reliance on taxpayer-funded government assistance.”

Unlike TANF and food stamps, the federal government does not have specific work requirements for Medicaid recipients. But various states have moved to institute them in recent years.

Arkansas notably passed legislation in 2018 requiring adults between 19 to 49 to work at least 80 hours per month to receive Medicaid. Excluded from the Arkansas work requirements are Medicaid recipients who are pregnant, have children, or have a disability preventing them from being able to work.

GOP lawmakers say that Arkansas’ overhaul could serve as a model for the nation.

“Medicaid was always intended for the aged, blind, and disabled — for the least in our society, who need help the most,” said Rep. Buddy Carter, Georgia Republican. “Trying to get back to that would probably be beneficial.”

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that  $135 billion would be saved throughout 2033 if Congress required Medicaid recipients to work at least 80 hours per month.

The overhaul would be the first to touch federal welfare programs since the mid-1990s. Those changes instituted federal work requirements and means-testing for social welfare programs while boosting job training alternatives.

President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996 as he sought reelection. The legislation gave state governments more autonomy over welfare services while reducing the federal government’s role.

The overhaul coincided with an 85% drop in recipients receiving direct cash payments through TANF and its predecessor between 1993 and 2019. The number of individuals receiving food stamps changes constantly because of economic factors like recession, while Medicaid rolls have exploded because of the Affordable Care Act.

Republicans say they want to expand work requirements but also target job training to ensure that once people are off welfare they remain off.

“We want a connection with a job, but we also want the caseworker to connect them with a job that’s family-sustaining,” said Rep. Lloyd Smucker, Pennsylvania Republican. “It needs to be outcome-based and not just incentivized by [the] process. That idea of federal accountability vs. flexibility.”

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