Instead of Expanding Work Requirements, the White House Should Help Families Rise Out of Poverty
Advocates of work requirements are becoming more emboldened. House Speaker Paul Ryan recently championed work requirements as a solution to fight poverty. The House version of the Farm Bill expands existing work requirements for low-income households to receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. And a few weeks back, President Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers released a report arguing that more and more people are relying on basic public benefits.
To rectify the so-called “dependence” on safety net programs, the report asserts that household members should be required to work to receive supports around nutrition, health and housing. In theory, this would incentivize work for families that would otherwise have a hard time accessing benefits.
But this glosses over the fact that most people who receive public benefits already work. For example, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that almost 75% of adults who get SNAP work within a year before or after the month they receive that benefit. Kaiser Family Foundation finds that over 60% of those receiving Medicaid who could work, do work. Unemployment is currently at historic lows, but wages remain stagnant and families struggle.
And work is not a cure-all. In fact, it can create more problems if families don’t have other supports in place. Work requirements add an additional barrier to families already facing obstacles such as a lack of child care, inadequate work skills and precarious health problems.
Work requirements also do not necessarily lead to increased work over time. In Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ review of work requirement studies, they report that when comparing programs with and without work requirements five years later, at least 75% of recipients of the programs worked regardless of whether the program they were in had work requirements.
Instead of imposing work requirements on our most vulnerable families, we need to help them secure financial stability and achieve economic mobility. Prosperity Now’s Scorecard shows that almost 40% of Americans live in liquid asset poverty, meaning they don’t have enough liquid savings to live at the poverty level for three months if they lose their income. While safety net programs are important to keep families fed, housed and with medical care, real financial stability is enabled by first having a financial cushion to weather uncertainties. This cushion includes, but is not limited to, savings and protections against predatory financial practices. Once finances are stabilized, households can move to the next step towards economic mobility: setting goals for the future, such as homeownership.
So let’s stop talking about adding more work requirements to safety net programs. Let's start focusing on better ideas to help families build financial stability and support their path to economic mobility:
Leverage Key Moments to Help Families Save
Rather than using the tax code to benefit the wealthy and corporations as December’s tax legislation did, we should leverage the tax code to help working families build financial stability by helping them to save at key touchpoints in their lives, such as tax time and the workplace.
A bipartisan package of bills introduced in the U.S. Senate two weeks ago attempts to do just that. The bipartisan Refund to Rainy Day Savings Act (S.3221) uses the tax time moment to let tax filers set aside a portion of their refund as emergency savings for later in the year. The Strengthening Financial Security Through Short-Term Savings Plans Act (S.3218) will make it easier for employers to offer rainy day savings accounts to their workers with the sole purpose of helping them save for the unexpected (and inevitable) financial shocks that happen in every household. Congress should focus on these bills, rather than making the new tax law—which overwhelmingly benefits those at the top—permanent.
Protect Families from Predatory Lenders
Another key element of financial stability is protection—especially for low-income households and households of color—from high-priced, predatory financial products. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) was established shortly after the 2008 financial crisis to safeguard households from financial products that helped create the crisis. Over its first six years, the CFPB returned over $12 billion to consumers affected by predatory financial practices. A strong CFPB is still crucial to stop bad actors from marketing financial products that people cannot afford.
To help people build wealth, we need a CFPB leader who recognizes the importance of its role in keeping families safe from financial predation. Unfortunately, Mick Mulvaney, the acting director of the CFPB appointed by President Trump last November, has acted decisively to weaken the Bureau since taking the reins. Kathy Kraninger has been nominated as a permanent director of the Bureau and would likely follow in Mulvaney’s footsteps. If appointed, we need to hold Kraninger accountable for honoring the agency’s mission.
Put Homeownership Within Everyone’s Reach
Financial stability with savings and consumer protections opens the door to economic mobility—homeownership propels families towards it. Homeownership is the bedrock of multigeneration wealth. For many families, their home is their most valuable asset, and this is particularly true for lower income households and households of color. While homeownership is not for everyone, it is unfairly out of reach for many interested households who can safely achieve it. Under the current system, many are locked out of or overpay for mortgages.
A large barrier to homeownership is poor credit, which makes it harder to secure a loan on a home or risks overpayment because of a high interest rate that accumulates over decades. About 45 million Americans have no credit score. Of the 190 million who have one, about half have a low (subprime) score. An important factor keeping credit scores low is a lack of credit card payments, which the credit bureaus use to determine credit scores.
Bills like the Credit Access and Inclusion Act (S. 3040) would create more opportunities for homeownership by diversifying the type of regular payments that can be reported to the credit bureaus, and consequently expand access to affordable mortgages. The bill encourages the reporting of rents, utilities and phone payments. Unlike mortgages and credit card payments, debt like rent and utilities are usually not reported. Yet many people who cannot afford a downpayment for a home or access low-cost credit cards are routinely paying their rent and phone bills. They deserve a boost in their credit score just like homeowners who faithfully pay their mortgage each month.
We need to increase financial stability and economic mobility across the United States rather than expand draconian measures that will prevent families from accessing basic supports they need to survive and ultimately, thrive. Find out how you can take action today to help families rise out of poverty.