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Why Behavioral Requirements Are Vital to Welfare Programs

Washington Examiner

June 14, 2023

Just as the welfare-to-work policies of the Clinton administration jump-started a remarkable improvement in the lives of black women, work requirements, such as those included in the recent debt ceiling bill , have proven successful in other programs. Improving behaviors is crucial if we want more struggling families to distance themselves from poverty.

Unfortunately, many liberals have labeled these efforts racist, reflecting a deep aversion to imposing behavioral requirements on any benefits programs.

When former President Barack Obama suspended the food stamp work requirement, the number of able-bodied adults without dependents receiving food stamps rose from 1.9 million to 3.9 million. After his suspension expired, waivers were issued to 44 states to extend it for two more years. One of the states that refused the waiver was Maine, where reinstituting the work-related requirement led to an 80% reduction among this group of recipients.

Just last year, when conservatives showed a willingness to extend the child tax credit expansion, liberals refused because it would not continue to allow the full credit to be received by households with zero-wage income.

A similar aversion infects proposals to deal with the California homelessness crisis. Liberals focus on “housing first,” a philosophy that calls for permanent housing but prohibits any behavioral requirements, such as sobriety or participation in services, as a condition for receiving housing benefits. Manhattan Institute senior fellow Stephen Eide notes , “Support for it runs deep among homelessness professionals, the leadership and staff of government agencies … and advocacy groups.” But when Los Angeles allocated substantial Housing First funding, Eide documents that it produced few units, with average costs well over $500,000. He recommends:

“More sober housing programs would provide homelessness policy in California with some desperately needed success stories. Sober programs also have a reputation as safer than programs with a laxer attitude toward whether tenants are using drugs or alcohol. … They can also help repair ‘burned bridges’ with friends and family.”

In most cities, public housing residents have no work requirements, but a small share of housing authorities has instituted work requirements with remarkable success. Before Chicago instituted work requirements in 2010, for example, more than half of project residents had “no wage income.” By 2017, that proportion had declined to 38%. Howard Husock notes , “An Urban Institute report found no increase in evictions and a modest increase in the rate of positive move outs because of gains in income attributed to compliance with the work requirement policy.”

Likewise, after Atlanta instituted a work requirement, labor force participation rose from 18% to 62%.

The Left’s unwillingness to impose behavioral requirements on the poor was also reflected in Michelle Obama’s approach to improving diets when she was first lady. While focusing on eliminating so-called food deserts and encouraging drinking water, she resolutely rejected instituting food stamp requirements to exclude sugary drinks that consumed 10% of food stamp expenditures. As a result, without administration leadership, soda industry lobbyists were able to defeat the proposed food stamp restriction successfully.

The aversion to changing behaviors extends to government campaigns that seek to influence family planning. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to discourage teenage pregnancy were harshly criticized and labeled a shaming campaign that unduly focused on young black women. The Left thoroughly rejects the “success sequence” promoted by conservatives: First, complete at least high school, then get a job, then get married, and only then have children. In fact, most liberals, such as Maryland professor Philip Cohen, argued that government promotion of marriage doesn’t lead to more marriages but stigmatizes out-of-wedlock births.

Of course, these opponents have no problem discouraging vocational training with a single-minded focus on the goal of four-year-college for all. Indeed, the liberal think tank Third Way vehemently opposed allowing Pell grants to be used on noncredit certificate programs. It argued that if students could receive such funding, it would “make it even harder for these credentials to stack towards an [academic] degree.”

I reviewed New York City’s reentry programs, where all those who had completed a high school equivalency degree while incarcerated were enrolled at a community college, including the Futures Now program at Bronx Community College, or BCC. Despite a committed staff that made every effort to help students succeed, in 2016 before math remediation requirements were eliminated, only 1 in 4 completed their associate’s degree. Many had very weak academic skills so that the majority were funneled into the liberal arts major because it was less demanding than the occupational programs available. Thus, few left BCC with employable skills, and among the small share that transferred to a four-year college, many floundered. The resistance to placing students in meaningful occupational programs was a disservice.

Programs must find constructive ways to prod struggling people to embrace behaviors that move them forward and offer more realistic training programs for those who fall behind. These are the anti-racist directions that we need.