The Best Way to Fight Poverty Is a Combination of Conservative and Liberal Policy | Opinion

Over the past few decades, we've seen a sustained effort to attach work requirements to all sorts of public assistance programs. One example was 1996's "welfare reform" law, which imposed strict penalties when workers failed to meet a threshold for working. More recently, some states have sought to impose work requirements for government-backed insurance programs like Medicaid, although the Biden administration has resisted these efforts.

The theory behind requiring beneficiaries of public assistance to secure paid jobs is that this will reduce dependence on government programs and promote work ethic. Most people would agree that it's better to be economically self-sufficient than rely on the dole to survive.

The problem is, some of the work requirements we've imposed may not be doing that at all.

In a working paper released this month, five researchers used administrative data from the state of Virginia to study the impact of work requirements imposed on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is more commonly referred to as food stamps.

What they found is that "work requirements dramatically reduce participation among affected adults" in the SNAP program, with the declines being "largest among beneficiaries, who, prior to the reinstatement of work requirements, are homeless or have no earned income." At the same time, they found no "large average increase" in employment, while failing "to detect an increase in self-employment or wage earnings along a large majority of the distribution."

"Our research suggest that SNAP benefits are not an important source of work disincentives for able-bodied adults without dependents," Adam Leive, an economics and public policy professor at the University of Virginia who co-authored the paper, explained to me over email. "Rather, this low- to no-income population likely faces alternative barriers to employment."

Pointing to homeless people in particular leaving the program at disproportionately high rates when work requirements are activated, Leive suggested that populations that face barriers to obtaining adequate housing may also face similar barriers to getting and keeping employment. "Securing and maintaining steady employment involves a number of non-financial constraints (e.g., availability of transportation to jobs, physical/health limitations)," he noted.

So simply punishing people for failing to secure jobs didn't appear to be a very effective way to get them working; the only real impact the work requirements had in this case was to deplete the number of people who were able to take advantage of the SNAP program.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the American impulse to promote a good work ethic. Dependency can indeed be destructive and getting out there and becoming self-sufficient has been a part of our country's ethos since the first settlers arrived on these shores. But as Leive's study shows, work requirements aren't always the best way to achieve this goal. Populations like the chronically homeless can't just jump into full-time careers with little support. Cutting them off from public assistance isn't magically going to remove all of the barriers between them and a good job.

Homeless LA
A mixture of an unhoused person's belongings and other debris covers a sidewalk outside of their shelter before Los Angeles City Sanitation workers conduct a cleanup sweep of a homeless encampment during the Covid-19 pandemic on January 28, 2021. PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

Instead of focusing so narrowly on work requirements, we should consider thinking about another way to pair public assistance with pro-social behavior.

In 2003, the center-left leader of Brazil, Lula da Silva, launched the program Bolsa Família, a conditional cash transfer program (CCT), that provided cash to poor families in exchange for meeting certain behavioral targets. Those targets included making sure families were sending their kids to school regularly as well as getting them vaccinated. And it's been a smashing success; one paper on the World Bank website refers to it as the country's "quiet revolution," as poverty decreased and school attendance and immunization rates increased.

The beauty of Bolsa Família is that it combines both liberal and conservative wisdom. Liberals rightly point out that the poor need more financial assistance in order to make ends meet, while conservatives are quick to insist that if you give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day, but if you teach him to fish, he'll be eating for the rest of his life.

CCT programs like Bolsa Família not only make sure that the least among us get more cash assistance; they gently encourage the poor to engage in pro-social behavior that benefits themselves and benefits society. The trick is to attach the right conditions.

Simply telling people that they have to find jobs when they may face deep social, economic, and psychological barriers to work can backfire, as Lieve's study demonstrated. But unlike America's work requirements, CCTs tend to focus on things that are within the recipient's direct control. Asking people to do things that we know are in their power, like making sure their children are regularly attending school, can have positive ripple effects.

Ironically, while CCT programs in the U.S. are rare, we actually finance them around the world through our support for bodies like the U.N. World Food Program and other multilateral organizations financed by our foreign aid programs.

It's understandable that Americans want to encourage pro-social behavior and good values among our citizens. But we should try to do so in ways that are backed up by evidence, both domestic and international.

Zaid Jilani is a journalist who hails from Atlanta, Georgia. He has previously worked as a reporter-blogger for ThinkProgress, United Republic, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and Alternet. He is the cohost of the podcast "Extremely Offline."

The views in this article are the author's own.