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To raise debt ceiling, House GOP wants new work requirements for safety net programs

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Tens of millions of Americans rely on food stamps and Medicaid to feed their families and keep themselves healthy. House Republicans want to make those safety net programs harder to qualify for, proposing stricter work requirements for food stamps, Medicaid and some cash assistance programs. Critics say the proposal would do little to boost employment but would make life more difficult for poor people. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now to talk more about all of this. Hey, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So what's putting work requirements in the spotlight specifically now?

HORSLEY: House Republicans feel like they have some leverage right now because of the looming deadline to raise the government's debt ceiling. So the GOP has rolled out a long wish list that it wants in exchange for votes to avoid a disastrous government default. And that includes these tougher work requirements for safety net programs. Here's how Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy described it this week.

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KEVIN MCCARTHY: By restoring these common sense measures, we can help more Americans earn a paycheck, learn new skills, reduce childhood poverty and rebuild the workforce.

HORSLEY: Now, work requirements have been part of the GOP playbook for a long time, at least as far back as welfare reform in the 1990s. And this plan is not likely to go anywhere with Democrats in control of the Senate and the White House. But you can see at least some superficial appeal of rebuilding the workforce at a time when the unemployment rate is really low and employers have been saying they can't find enough workers. The reality, however, is the workforce is already rebuilding on its own. In just the last couple of months, nearly 900,000 people have come off the sidelines and started working or looking for work. And in fact, the share of people in their prime working years who are in the labor force is higher now than it was before the pandemic.

CHANG: But let me ask you, would tighter work requirements for food stamps or Medicaid actually put more people to work?

HORSLEY: Not necessarily. Keep in mind most able-bodied adults in the food stamp program already work, and those who don't are typically in school or caring for young children. Some states have experimented with more stringent work requirements. For example, Arkansas had a short-lived work requirement for Medicaid back in 2018. Sharon Parrott, who's president of the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, says it didn't do much to boost employment.

SHARON PARROTT: The evidence has now been clear for a long time that when we take help away from people, it doesn't help them get jobs. In fact, sometimes it can make it harder to get a job. Losing that health care can lead you to have worse health outcomes and now be less able to engage in the labor market.

HORSLEY: We saw something similar in 2021, when some states phased out pandemic unemployment benefits early in an effort to push people back into the workforce. Taking away those benefits didn't result in higher employment, but it did make it harder for people to pay their bills.

CHANG: Exactly. Well, are there other downsides to adding a work requirement?

HORSLEY: Well, this would be a particularly tough time for people to lose food stamps. Just a couple months ago, the government ended the supplemental food stamp benefits that were in place during the pandemic. And food pantries around the country are reporting longer lines as more people come looking for help. I spoke with Casey Steury, who's the director of operations at the Hoosier Hills Food Bank in south central Indiana.

CASEY STEURY: We're seeing a pretty big increase over the last four months. I think a big part of it is inflation, the cost of food, cost of medicine, costs of utilities. We're thinking that the next few months are going to be even harder.

HORSLEY: What's more, when you add tougher work requirements, a lot of people, including some who are working, just won't jump through the hoops and won't get the help, the safety net programs they're entitled to.

CHANG: That is NPR's Scott Horsley. Thank you, Scott.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.