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GOP is pushing work requirements in debt-limit talks — but experts say they don't work

Among Republican lawmakers's list of demands in their debt-ceiling negotiations with the Biden Administration is a push to add more work requirements for the food-stamp, Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs.

One big problem, experts say, is that there's little evidence that such rules actually help people get back to work. 

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the formal name for the food-stamp program, already has work requirements for many recipients, which Republican lawmakers want to expand to cover more low-income and older Americans. But the existing rules haven't had much of an impact on getting people back to work, and adding more regulations risks bumping struggling families from the program's rolls, experts say.

Work requirements "don't accomplish what they are supposed to accomplish, which is increasing employment and income," Shawn Fremstad, director of law and political economy and senior adviser at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a left-leaning think tank, told CBS MoneyWatch. "There are negative effects, like losing benefits even though you aren't replacing it with income."

Currently, adults who are between 18 to 49, who are able-bodied and without dependents are required to work 20 hours a week or enroll in a work-training program to receive food stamps. The GOP's plan would boost those work requirements to people up to 55 years old.

The GOP plan could result in the loss of food-stamp benefits for 1 million older adults, without evidence that it would help boost employment with the group, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said in a May 18 research note.

Extra pandemic-era SNAP benefits end for over 30 million people 00:27

Kevin McCarthy: "Help people get a job"

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said including additional work requirements for able-bodied people with no dependents is a "red line" for any debt-ceiling deal. "What work requirements actually do — help people get a job," McCarthy told reporters earlier this month.

While it isn't clear from the evidence that they do help people find jobs, adding work requirements for SNAP, Medicaid and other programs would have one major impact: They would cut federal spending on the programs, according to an April analysis from the Congressional Budget Office.

Over the next decade, the impact would reduce Medicaid spending by $109 billion and lower spending on SNAP by $11 billion. The impact on TANF would only be a $6 million savings, it estimated. The latter is because TANF already has work requirements, the CBO said.

The lower spending would be a result of people losing SNAP and Medicaid coverage due to the work requirements, the analysis found. The biggest hit could be to Medicaid, which currently doesn't have work requirements, with about 1.5 million adults losing federal funding for their coverage, the CBO said.

Food banks prepare for increased demand as pandemic-era benefits end 02:17

Work requirements for SNAP

Expanding SNAP's work requirements would also come at a time when many families are grappling with a cut to their benefits that went into effect in March, as well as high inflation in the grocery aisles. Those cuts, which impacted an estimated 30 million Americans, were due to the end of pandemic-related aid.

The current work requirements in SNAP have had "no or little positive impact on employment while excluding a substantial number of vulnerable people," according to the CEPR, which recently analyzed 19 economic and policy studies examining the issue. 

It's not the first time this year that Republicans have pushed bigger work requirements for food-stamp aids, with more than 20 GOP lawmakers proposing a new law in March that would add work requirements to people up to 65 years old, among other changes. They pointed to data that found that 3% of food-stamp recipients had no income, "meaning they did not work at all," the lawmakers said at the time.

As that small share suggests, the vast majority of people who are on food-stamps and who can work are already working, experts say. And those who aren't are often providing unpaid care to children, older family members, are in school or aren't working due to health problems. 

Food stamps currently are a "work support program" for low-paid workers, noted Fremstad. "If anything, we have more poorly compensated workers receiving benefits, and if you think that's a problem, then the solutions are increasing wages, increasing unions, and so on."

Millions could lose Medicaid as pandemic protections expire 04:15

Work requirements for Medicaid

Under the Republican proposal, some able-bodied Medicaid recipients without dependents would for the first time be required to participate in work-related activities for at least 80 hours a month in exchange for health care. 

While Medicaid hasn't had a federal work requirement, one state — Arkansas — implemented such measures in 2018. The result: 18,000 Arkansans lost health care coverage, with many suffering from adverse effects like medical debt or skipping medications. It didn't increase employment in the state, according to the CBO. In 2019, a court ruling ended Arkansas' work requirements for Medicaid.

President Joe Biden said on Sunday that he will not accept anything that takes away people's health care coverage.

"The one great pro-work thing about health insurance is it helps you keep your work capacity," Fremstad said. "It's something that helps you maintain and increase your capabilities in the workforce, so to have a work requirement for health insurance is nuts."

With reporting by the Associated Press.

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