WASHINGTON – Today, the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality (GCPI) released a new report, Unworkable & Unwise: Conditioning Access to Programs that Ensure a Basic Foundation for Families on Work Requirements. The report outlines the ramifications of taking away Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and housing assistance from those who don’t document meeting new work and community engagement requirements.

“Lawmakers in Washington and in state capitals across the country are promoting policy ideas that fundamentally misunderstand the contributions of and obstacles faced by working people. The imposition of work requirements is more likely to penalize those already working than to raise participants’ employment or earnings,” said Kali Grant, Senior Policy Associate at GCPI. “As our paper outlines, work requirements are ill-informed, ineffective, inefficient, and inequitable. The recent proposals emerging from the Trump Administration, Congress, and state houses across the country would hurt low-income individuals and families; deepen poverty for adults, as well as their children; and would make it more difficult for people to find and keep work.

Figure 2. The vast majority of Medicaid, SNAP, & housing assistance participants not engaged in formal employment due to caregiving, school, retirement, or sickness or disability

Main reported reason for not working among Medicaid, SNAP, and HUD-assisted housing participants, 2017

Three charts demonstrating the reasoning for not working, including Ill/has a disability, retired, going to school, caregiving, or could not find work

These proposals miss the fact that many of our country’s economic security programs are already tied to employment and the majority using Medicaid, SNAP, and housing assistance already work or are unable to work, often due to challenges of low-paid work, caregiving responsibilities, and disabilities and chronic health conditions. Research makes clear that Medicaid, SNAP, and housing assistance provide a foundation that can help promote work. These new work tests move in the wrong direction. Fortunately, there are commonsense solutions policymakers can implement. The report explores some of the most promising ways to bolster employment and improve financial stability for families across the country,” Grant added.

Research on the effects of economic security programs strongly suggests that every individual and every family require a stable and strong foundation to be healthy and succeed in the labor market and beyond. By providing economic security for disadvantaged individuals and families, Medicaid, SNAP, and housing assistance also advance economic opportunity.

  • Due to America’s employer-based health insurance system, which falls particularly short for workers in low-wage industries, Medicaid acts as the backstop for over 76 million low-income Americans who would otherwise not have coverage;
  • One in eight Americans rely on SNAP to purchase food, including many who are at greatest risk of experiencing hunger or poor nutrition; and
  • Fewer than 1 in 30 people receive housing assistance.

Report Highlights

Problems With Taking Away Health Care, Housing, And Food Assistance From People Who Don’t Meet New Work Requirements

The report underscores how proposals that take away basic assistance from people who don’t meet work requirements are ill-informed, ineffective, inefficient, and inequitable, while alternative policies would produce far better outcomes.

  • Ill-informed: Proposals that take away assistance from people who don’t meet harshwork requirements don’t account for the realities of today’s low-wage labor market and the systemic barriers, such as caregiving responsibilities and discrimination, standing between workers and quality, stable, and secure employment. At the same time, the majority of working-age program participants without a work-limiting disability generally work;
  • Ineffective: Taking away assistance from people who fail to meet mandatory work requirements has not been proven to be an effective work-boosting strategy and likely results in the deepening or increasing of poverty over time;
  • Inefficient: Taking away assistance from people who don’t meet work requirements creates more work—but not more employment. Such rules are costly to administer and time-intensive. Program administrators will spend more time implementing these requirements rather than focusing on supporting the health, housing, and income support needs of participants; and
  • Inequitable: Taking away foundational programs from people who don’t meet work requirements put populations already facing barriers, including children, people with disabilities, caregivers, older workers, and workers of color, further at risk.

Alternative Solutions

Work requirements are put into place based on the faulty notion that participants in assistance programs are not incentivized to work or earn higher wages and choose to rely on public benefits. Overwhelming evidence suggests, however, that instead of taking away benefits from participants who don’t meet new work requirements, a well-informed policy agenda should focus on removing barriers to higher employment and earnings, particularly for people facing multiple barriers to employment, such as people with chronic health conditions, people with disabilities, and veterans.

Some states are leading the way and providing innovative solutions to help people facing the greatest barriers. For example, in Montana, the state provides a Medicaid initiative that attempts to remove barriers to employment by offering intensive outreach to unemployed Medicaid recipients, including on-the-job training and subsidized employment, operated through its workforce system. While not formally evaluated at this point, the state reports high employment rates for participants.

A robust employment agenda could focus on:

  • Expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC): The EITC provides low-income individuals and families an annual lump sum after they file their federal income tax returns. Research from two pilot programs that expanded the EITC for workers without dependent children in New York City and Atlanta found they have reduced deep poverty, boosted employment, and led to an increase in child support payments among noncustodial parents.
  • Increasing Child Care Assistance: For parents, safe and reliable child care is necessary to be able to work. This is especially true for parents of young children not yet of elementary school age. As any parent knows, child care is expensive and can take up a large portion of a family’s income, especially for those working in low-wage jobs. Today, funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grant program, the main source of federal funding for child care, has stagnated. Unstable child care arrangements can interfere with parental employment and increase poverty for adults as well as their children.
  • Providing Paid Family Leave: The birth of a child can be disruptive to work. In the United States, a majority of workers have access to up to 12 weeks of unpaid family leave under federal law. However, the unpaid nature means it can be particularly difficult for lower-income workers to take advantage of leave, even if they have it. As a result, new parents or others with family health emergencies may need to quit jobs. A study of California’s paid leave program found “evidence of 10 to 17% increases in work hours 1 to 3 years after the birth, conditional on employment, and possibly with similar growth in wage income.” It also found indications that use of paid leave had increased among mothers of color and non-college educated women.
  • Create subsidized employment programs: Subsidized employment programs target individuals with significant barriers to employment, including people in areas of concentrated joblessness, and provide participants with wage-paying jobs, training, and wraparound services, while offsetting employers’ costs. Such programs have seen positive impacts on earnings and employment and have helped people returning from prison and reduced recidivism rates, even after the program duration. Creating a national subsidized employment program with dedicated and flexible funding streams could lead to further-reaching gains for the well-being of participating workers and their families, employers, and communities.

To learn more about the menu of solutions policymakers can implement to help people experiencing poverty and low-wage workers, read the full report.


About GCPI: The Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality (GCPI) works with policymakers, researchers, practitioners, advocates, and people with lived experience to develop effective policies and practices that alleviate poverty and inequality in the United States.

GCPI conducts research and analysis, develops policy and programmatic solutions, hosts convenings and events, and produces reports, briefs, and policy proposals. We develop and advance promising ideas and identify risks and harms of ineffective policies and practices, with a cross-cutting focus on racial and gender equity.

The work of GCPI is conducted by two teams: The Initiative on Gender Justice and Opportunity and the Economic Security and Opportunity Initiative.

The mission of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality’s (GCPI) Economic Security and Opportunity Initiative (ESOI) is to expand economic inclusion in the United States through rigorous research, analysis, and ambitious ideas to improve programs and policies. Further information about GCPI’s ESOI is available at www.georgetownpoverty.org.