To hear it from House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, there won’t be a deal on the debt ceiling without work requirements. Meaning, his caucus wants harsh new restrictions to be placed on needy recipients of social welfare programs, forcing them to secure jobs and submit proof of near-full-time employment just to remain eligible for things like food aid and health care. In other words, McCarthy is holding the economy hostage so that fewer poor Americans can access the country’s already paltry welfare state.
What is this—the 1990s?
President Joe Biden seems to think so. When asked over the weekend about this GOP “red line,” he re-upped his previous support for welfare reform from his time as a senator by telling reporters, “I voted for tougher aid programs that’s in the law now, but [raising the work-requirement age] for Medicaid, it’s a different story.” This was a reference to his 1996 vote for the Clinton-era legislation that Clinton bragged would “end welfare as we know it,” accomplished with the help of restrictive new work requirements. Biden suggested that he might be open to new restrictions to federal aid programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (cash assistance for families) in a compact with the GOP. He said he was not open to restrictions on Medicaid, which Republicans also want.
It’s an alarming position on a number of levels. Decades of research have shown that work requirements have been completely ineffective when it comes to moving people out of poverty or even encouraging them to find work—in fact, work requirements may actually make it harder for people to find and maintain employment. They work only in restricting access to lifesaving support and are, therefore, de facto cuts, which is why Republicans embrace them. Importantly, they are also a “non-starter” for House Democrats, according to top House Democrat Hakeem Jeffries—not to mention a complete disavowal of the president’s own position on welfare expansion from just two years ago.
After Biden’s original statement, the White House issued a mealy-mouthed addendum that said Biden was not open to work requirements on Medicaid, without mentioning the other critical programs that would be burdened by it, and the president tweeted, “We should reduce the deficit by making sure the wealthy and large corporations pay their fair share in taxes.” When asked in a press pool on Wednesday, the president again refused to rule out new restrictions.
The president’s newfound openness to work requirements would mark a stunning retrenchment from a man who, just two years ago, signed into law the largest expansion of the welfare state in decades. And it’s kicked off a bitter showdown behind the McCarthy-Biden showdown—nesting showdowns, as it were—as House and Senate Democrats have come out forcefully against the White House’s position on this.
Just how out of character is Biden’s sudden pivot toward the GOP-favored policy? The American Rescue Plan Act, inked just after Biden was inaugurated in 2021, featured major boosts in funding for everything from food aid to health care. The flagship policy of the package was the Child Tax Credit, which was notable not just for its size but for its construction. It was, critically, not subject to work requirements, a feature that was touted in the first breath of the program’s description as a pathbreaking development in the president and party’s orientation toward welfare programs.
The Child Tax Credit has, ever since, been celebrated as a flagship program of the Biden administration. The income-restricted benefit, $300 per child per month, immediately cut child poverty in half. That was no coincidence: That it was immune to work requirements meant that it was easily accessible to parents.
Then the program expired after a year, and a barrage of lobbying by conservative groups just so happened to coincide with West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin having an epiphany that the benefit was going to layabouts. He pulled his support for it. In the easiest cause-and-effect sequence imaginable, the policy died, and child poverty rocketed upward.
That isn’t the only welfare program that’s been throttled since then. In the past few months alone, numerous other programs have seen their expansions clawed back. On March 1, as the result of a deal Democrats struck with Republicans in December (when they could have raised or abolished the debt ceiling but didn’t), the federal government shut off enhanced food aid for 32 states, aggressively constricting benefits and leading to a massive spike in hunger.
A month later, somewhere between 5 million and 14 million people lost Medicaid coverage after the Medicaid expansion in the American Rescue Plan Act expired.
Those cuts to all sides of the welfare state are profound, but it is Biden’s willingness to consider the return of work requirements that marks the biggest intellectual whiplash of his entire presidency.
In just over two years, the president has done a complete 180 on what Politico called “the evolution of the Democratic Party.” As that story put it: “Once fearful of race-baiting rhetoric on supposedly lazy ‘welfare queens,’ the party now is largely unapologetic about spending money to strengthen the social safety net.”
Now the legitimacy of work requirements has been given new life by the president. After the already deep cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a new round of restrictions could be devastating to the program. Meanwhile, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the poster child program for work requirements, also looks primed for new restrictions; TANF is already so hobbled by restrictive work standards from the Clinton bill that it barely exists for needy Americans at all. Over a quarter of TANF-eligible Americans don’t get the benefit. It is perhaps worth noting that Bruce Reed, Biden’s deputy chief of staff, is best known as the mastermind of that Clinton legislation. Jeff Zients, Biden’s chief of staff, is well-known for the “cut, cut, cut and give Republicans everything they want” strategy from the 2013 fiscal cliff standoff.
Already the pushback from House Democrats and civil rights groups has been searing. “We did not elect Joe Biden of 1986,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told Politico. “We elected Joe Biden of 2020.”
She added that additional work requirements for SNAP were “an absolutely terrible idea” and “a nonstarter for many of us across the Democratic caucus.” It is indeed very unlikely to fly with the House Democratic Caucus, which has been resolute in its rejection of work requirements. Senate Democrats are also coming out hard against the notion, from Massachusetts’ Elizabeth Warren to Pennsylvania’s John Fetterman.
For now, though, the president seems to have run the gamut of an extremely troubling cycle, going from unapologetically expanding the welfare state, to standing quietly by while all those expansions expired, to now laying the groundwork for even tighter restrictions than ever.
Regardless of how much is ultimately ceded on the policy side, progressives seem to have, almost overnight, lost the war of ideas in the White House, at least over the legitimacy of policy prescriptions like work requirements.The 1990s are back, it seems, and with them, the Joe Biden progressives most feared.