Skip to main content
Blog Post

Is President Biden About to Triangulate Democrats on Welfare Work Requirements?


May 17, 2023

On Sunday, President Joe Biden signaled his openness to expanding work requirements for key welfare benefits as part of the debt limit deal he is currently negotiating with Congress. Of those work requirements, Biden said: “I voted for tougher aid programs that’s in the law now. . . . And so I’m waiting to hear what their exact proposal is.

That’s an encouraging sign for Republicans, who made expanded work requirements for TANF welfare checks, SNAP (commonly known as food stamps), and Medicaid a key focus of the debt limit legislation they passed through the House in April. But even though the president has dismissed proposed new requirements for Medicaid, his openness on strengthening current TANF and food stamp requirements triggered alarms among liberal Democrats. As a Politico article notes,

Biden’s comments to reporters on Sunday have already unleashed a wave of private handwringing from Democrats, some of whom made frenzied phone calls to White House officials on Sunday night and Monday, according to two Democrats familiar with the calls. Democrats have beaten back a range of GOP attempts to increase work requirements for key safety net programs in recent years. . . . Liberal Democrats on the Hill have been worried that Biden and vulnerable Senate Democrats could agree to concessions on SNAP or other aid programs, especially given Biden’s past embrace of the Clinton-era welfare reform in the 1990s.”

Liberals don’t have to look back three decades to find cause for concern that Biden may triangulate away from them. In March, when the president unexpectedly backed Republican legislation overturning soft-on-crime reforms imposed by the DC city council, Politico headlined “Dems seethe over Biden’s crime reform betrayal.”

The Capitol Hill rag also suggested Biden’s March move “chose politics over principle.” But a quick review of work requirement policies currently in play suggests the president’s latest calculus might deftly combine principle with politics.

One House-passed policy would bar “small check schemes” that weaken TANF work requirements by allowing states to ignore the welfare-to-work needs of current recipients. California started a small checks program in 2015, which pays $10 per month “to all working parents in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP),” according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS). That move—adding current workers to TANF by paying them nominal TANF-funded benefits—artificially raises a state’s work rate, absolving the state from engaging the program’s real recipients with help in getting to work. According to CRS, California’s scheme caused “more than half (54%)” of the apparent increase in the national TANF program’s work rate from 2013 to 2015, and work rate increases in the past decade “stemmed mostly” from such schemes in multiple states. The president’s agreeing to close this loophole exploited by California among other states would put principle over politics.

Another key policy in the House-passed legislation would expand the current work requirements for collecting food stamps that apply to able-bodied adults without dependents (i.e. “ABAWDS,” which excludes disabled and pregnant individuals and others with health-related work limitations). Those requirements currently expect ABAWDS under age 50 to engage in at least part-time work, training, or community service to be eligible for food stamps beyond three months. The House bill would expand that policy by also covering prime-age workers through age 55. Biden, who is already three decades beyond the current age cap and seeking another term as president, may be especially sensitive to arguments that Americans in their early 50s are too old to be expected to work or engage in community service.

The president is no doubt also sensitive to polling that shows that, while Congressional Republicans are pushing current pro-work policies, significant majorities in key states and in both parties support work requirements for taxpayer-funded benefits. In April, almost 80 percent of Wisconsin voters approved a ballot measure that said welfare recipients should at least search for work to receive taxpayer-funded benefits. And in February, a YouGov poll found that two-thirds of Americans—including 64 percent of Democrats—support expecting able-bodied welfare recipients to participate in work or training in exchange for benefits.

Liberal Democrats in safely blue House and Senate seats may be comfortable ignoring such popular sentiments. But President Biden, who is running one last time across an ideologically diverse country, appears to sense he lacks the luxury of their handwringing over such widely supported policies.

About the Author

Matt Weidinger