Work Requirement Ignites Fairness Debate

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The best evidence supporting work requirements — much of it after passage of the 1996 welfare overhaul law — was collected during a much stronger economy, however. And research suggests that demanding work in exchange for government aid is a dubious way to lift people out of poverty.

“There was a mantra associated with some aspects of welfare reform — ‘a job, a better job, then a career’ — that led people to think getting off welfare into the work force would be the beginning of an upward progression until you enter the middle class,” said Jeffrey Grogger, a professor of urban policy at the University of Chicago who has studied welfare reform. “We never saw much of that.”

Welfare rolls declined and employment increased in the late 1990s after the welfare overhaul enhanced requirements for work. But the employment gains by people who were required to work (compared with those who weren’t) faded with time, suggesting that the requirement wasn’t making that much difference over the long term. And typically the jobs they did find continued to pay poverty-level wages.

Critics of work requirements also assert that they strip aid from people with legitimate obstacles to finding employment, which can push the poor deeper into poverty. The real problem, opponents argue, isn’t that low-income adults don’t want to work, but that they can’t for hard-to-fix reasons — they lack skills or child care, or have criminal records or health challenges that don’t qualify as a disability.

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