Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
By imposing work requirements, the president is escalating his decades-long campaign against government aid.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Tuesday that will force recipients of federal assistance—benefits for housing, food, and healthcare—to demonstrate their employment to be eligible for aid. The move, widely anticipated by welfare agencies and eagerly awaited by conservatives, represents a significant change to the social safety net.
The administration is also mulling a plan to require drug testing for recipients of food aid, according to a report by the Associated Press. The decisions reflect long-standing complaints that conservatives have lodged against welfare—criticisms that Trump appears to hold close to heart.
The Trump administration has explored a number of pathways to get work requirements on the books. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development floated job requirements in draft legislative changes to the 1937 act that established housing aid. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue named work requirements as a priority for reforming the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in the next farm bill.
Tuesday’s executive order—the culmination of the anger that Trump has expressed over welfare for years—clears the way for those changes and more across the government. Advocates for welfare say that it will hinder the people who require aid, not help them.
“The Executive Order’s main policy prescription is to take basic assistance such as Medicaid, food assistance, and housing away from people who are not working or in job training or other employment programs,” said Sharon Parrot, senior fellow for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in an email. “But the evidence shows that such requirements have few long-term positive effects on employment and often result in families losing help they need to afford the basics.”
The Center just released a paper showing how work requirements could cause Medicaid enrollees to lose their healthcare entirely—even among enrollees who are employed. Were all states to adopt work requirements like the one that exists in Kentucky, the research shows, some 46 percent of low-income workers would be at risk of losing Medicaid coverage.
That’s because low-wage jobs tend to be less stable than other forms of employment: shift work with irregular schedules, not salaried positions with 40-hour work-weeks. Meeting Kentucky’s standard of 80 work hours per month, for example, would present a burden to one in four Medicaid recipients who work an average of 80 hours per month, because they do not work 80 hours every month.
“These requirements often hurt people with serious health conditions who aren’t able to work,” Parrot said in an email. “[They] hurt workers who can’t get enough hours some months or find themselves between jobs, hurt children who lose out when their families can’t get food assistance or their parents can’t get health care or can’t pay the rent, and hurt other vulnerable Americans who count on the help basic assistance programs provide.”
Trump’s hostility to welfare dates back at least as far as 1973, when he and his father, Fred Trump, were sued by the Department of Justice for violating the Fair Housing Act. Angrily denouncing the charges of racially discriminatory practices at Trump properties, the future president accused the government of trying to force him to accept “welfare recipients.” (Trump eventually signed a consent decree with DOJ to prohibit racial discrimination in his buildings.)
“What we didn’t do was rent to welfare cases, white or black,” Trump wrote a decade later.
The program has been a consistent target of Trump’s ire in the years since. His 2011 book, Time To Get Tough, is filled with cherry-picked outrages and dog-whistles about waste—for example, a scandal in California in which recipients of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program withdrew several thousand dollars in aid from ATMs at strip clubs over a period of two years. That did happen, but that’s hardly typical. The bigger problem with TANF has always been that states have failed to use the block grants to actually fight poverty.
“There’s nothing ‘compassionate’ about allowing welfare dependency to be passed from generation to generation,” Trump’s book states, in a chapter titled “A Safety Net, Not a Hammock.”
Elsewhere in the book, Trump condemns what he sees as linkages between welfare, obesity, and out-of-wedlock childbirths. He praises a (short-lived) welfare reform bill passed by Florida Governor Rick Scott in 2011 that required drug testing for TANF recipients. Trump writes: “Bottom line: You do drugs, no welfare check. End of story.”
Just three years later, a federal appeals court overturned the Florida bill. “The state has not demonstrated a more prevalent, unique or different drug problem among TANF applicants than in the general population,” the unanimous decision stated. Now, with the nation is in the grip of an opioid epidemic, the Trump administration may try to restore drug testing—another administrative cost for federal aid programs and another burden for recipients.
Trump railed broadly against the expansion of the social safety net in response to the Great Recession, blaming President Barack Obama for what he perceived as a national turn toward profligacy. Trump called Obama “the Welfare & Food Stamp President” in a tweet in 2012 (among other times), writing, “He doesn’t believe in work.”
While it’s true that spending on SNAP grew from $30.4 billion to $76.1 billion over 6 years corresponding with the recession, it proved to be critical to preventing American families from falling into deep poverty. (Spending has since leveled off.) The Urban Institute finds that SNAP helped more than 8 million people exit poverty in 2015. Introducing work requirements to families who receive food aid—or Medicaid, or Section 8 vouchers—could tip millions of vulnerable households into severe financial hardship.
Trump’s animosity toward poverty assistance does not appear to be well supported by facts. In 2013, for example, he tweeted that “welfare pays better than jobs” in New York, citing a New York Post story. But that story had tabulated how much a single mother with two children could receive if she earned every possible social safety net benefit all at once: public housing, Medicaid, SNAP, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, utility assistance, and so on.
Similarly, a White House fact sheet on Trump’s “Principles of Economic Mobility“ cites low unemployment and labor shortages in contrast to welfare enrollment that it describes as “at or near-historic highs”—the takeaway being that layabouts on social assistance are having a pronounced effect on the economy. But the National Low Income Housing Coalition reports that only 6 percent of households that receive housing aid could be considered “work-able” but not employed.
Instead, recipients of federal aid are more likely to be seniors, disabled, or caretakers—or low-wage shift workers with unpredictable schedules. Setting work requirements in the name of welfare reform may wind up punishing the people it is ostensibly nudging toward self-sufficiency.
“Work requirements do not create the jobs and opportunities needed to lift people out of poverty, but instead could cut struggling families off from the very housing stability and services that make it possible for them to find and maintain jobs,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, back in February.
Trump’s work requirements may nevertheless be popular. A poll on welfare reform conducted in February by the conservative Foundation for Government Accountability found overwhelming support for “requiring able-bodied adults to work, train, or volunteer at least part-time in order to receive welfare.” As CityLab reported then, 85 percent of suburban women responded in the affirmative.
But the question is leading: Volunteering would not count toward Trump’s work requirements, and most work-able recipients of aid do work part-time already. Misconceptions about how the social safety net works—plus popular racist myths about people who receive aid—have contributed to widespread but mistaken beliefs about welfare. Trump appears to believe the worst about welfare, and he brings an added layer of bitterness to the issue—as well as the power of the presidential pen.