Will Trump Choose Work Over Welfare?

Will Trump Choose Work Over Welfare?
AP Photo/Evan Vucci

In his inaugural address, President Trump promised to “get our people off of welfare and back to work.” One hopes this signals a change for welfare policy. 

But details and policy specifics matter as much as presidential pronouncements. If the President and his team are serious about promoting work, they should look no further for guidance than one of the swing states crucial to their victory: Wisconsin. Gov. Scott Walker’s Wisconsin Works for Everyone plan exhibits the same key principle that I learned when I led Mayor Bloomberg’s pro-work welfare policy in New York City: Strong work requirements need to be linked with well-designed government assistance programs that make work pay.

In press coverage of the plan, the overwhelming majority of attention has focused on Walker’s proposal to ask able-bodied parents with school-age children to participate in activities designed to lead to employment as a condition of receiving food stamp benefits. Anti-hunger advocates and Democrats in the state legislature have blasted this idea, with one state senator calling it “morally unfair and unjust.”

This reform is by no means unprecedented; other states have put similar requirements in place, as did Wisconsin under a previous governor. Moreover, it is an important step towards encouraging more poor adults to go to work. According to Gov. Walker, there are 7,300 households statewide with able-bodied adults and school age children that are receiving food stamp benefits while reporting no other income. Everyone who works in social services knows that no family can live on food stamp benefits alone. The program must do a better job of addressing the main reason why so many families turn to government assistance in the first place: They do not have earnings from work.

Gov. Walker’s food stamp work requirement would require parents of school-age children who are not working 80 hours a month to participate in job training, and his administration has committed to make the necessary investments in training programs to ensure that every recipient has a slot, if needed. And for recipients who do not comply even with this requirement, only the adult’s portion of the benefit will be reduced. 

Some critics rightfully worry that poor families could be denied needed assistance. But this policy is unlikely to result in such increased hardship. A recent report on poverty and opportunity by a bipartisan group of experts organized by the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution agreed that further work requirements in assistance programs should be explored as long as “some kind of constructive activity (even if unpaid) be available to all before terminating their benefits.” (I was a member of the bipartisan group of poverty experts who produced the report.)

Walker is bringing a work focus to other programs as well. Wisconsin will seek a waiver to experiment with work requirements in its housing voucher program — a proposal very similar to the pilot program in North Carolina that saw gains in employment for public-housing residents without an increase in evictions after instituting work requirements.

Crucially, Walker does not forget about the group most neglected in our nation’s anti-poverty efforts: low-skilled men, often noncustodial fathers, who have little interaction with the safety net. The Wisconsin plan includes funding for a demonstration of court-ordered employment programs for noncustodial parents who are unable to support their children financially. 

This proposal has a strong evidence-base: NCP-Choices in Texas, a mandatory work participation program for noncustodial parents, saw participants employed at 21 percent higher rates than the control group. Similarly, a child-support employment program entitled Supporting Parents, Supporting Kids, which operates in Wisconsin’s Brown and Kenosha counties, offers robust employment services and parenting education and has shown promising results thus far. Walker used both as models.

Finally, Walker recognizes that rewarding work is also a key piece of welfare reform. The Wisconsin plan makes targeted increases in the state’s earned income tax credit: both for noncustodial parents who work and pay their child support, and for some of the most vulnerable young adults in our society: individuals aging out of foster care and former beneficiaries of a federal program for disabled children who lose their eligibility at 18. These two groups have abysmally low employment rates; the increased wage subsidy has a good chance of drawing more of them into jobs.

For parents with young children, child care is a serious barrier to employment. The existence of child-care benefit cliffs discourages increased work. In Wisconsin, when a family receiving child care assistance reaches 200 percent of the poverty level, they may lose more in subsidies than they gain in earnings. In response, Walker hopes to establish a phase-out in their child-care subsidy program that will extend child-care assistance further up the income ladder. This will cost real money. But a successful pro-work antipoverty strategy must always ensure that increased work leads to increased income.

Altogether, this package offers a model the Trump administration should follow. Many changes could be made both administratively and by statute to help focus the federal government’s food stamp program on employment. All federal assistance programs for working-age adults should grant states waivers so they can test and rigorously evaluate efforts to push recipients to work. And, given his support for expanding child care subsidies on the campaign trail, the new president could put forward an affordable, targeted proposal to help low-income parents choose work without losing needed child-care assistance.

Will the administration pursue this type of employment-focused antipoverty agenda, one that will make good on President Trump’s promise in his inaugural address? We will soon find out.

Robert Doar is the Morgridge Fellow in Poverty Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. From 2007–2013, he was commissioner of the New York City Human Resources Administration.

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