Comment: Work requirements don’t work to curb ‘entitlement’

The requirements for aid deny parents help they need to work and feed and house their families.

By Bobbi Dempsey / Special To The Washington Post

The child tax credit underwent a major overhaul this year, increasing in size (to as much as $3,600 per child, depending on age), the number of families eligible (now including the poorest households with little or no earned income) and frequency of payments (moving from annual to monthly increments). For many families, it’s been a godsend: In September, researchers from Columbia Universityestimated that it had already helped lift more than 3 million children out of poverty.

Congress is now debating extending or making permanent this new version of the child tax credit. But that push faces major opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who vocally objects not just to the program’s costs but to what he calls an “entitlement mentality.” Entitlement is a single word that can say a lot, revealing underlying beliefs about who deserves support and who doesn’t. When directed toward beneficiaries of safety net programs, it’s often a euphemism for “lazy” or “undeserving.” To ensure that help goes to “the right people,” in Manchin’s words, he has proposed constraints such as work requirements.

Work requirements come off as oblivious to how challenging and labor-intensive the daily lives of poor and working-class parents are. Forcing parents to earn a paycheck to maintain eligibility for benefits such as the child tax credit or other safety net programs, without providing them the basic resources and support system that working requires, would be setting them up to fail.

Such requirements come up against a basic reality: Parents can work outside the home only if someone else cares for their children. We saw how, during the pandemic, schools shifted to virtual learning, leaving many kids at home all day and in need of supervision. As a result, on top of the many parents who lost their jobs, many others had to quit or cut back their hours. Even as schools have now reopened, finding affordable child care — tough enough for many parents even before the coronavirus struck — is nearly impossible. The child-care sector lacks the necessary staffing or resources to operate at full capacity. This creates a Catch-22 where women who want to work cannot afford to do so; and are thus unable to fulfill work requirements.

I am all too familiar with that struggle. When my kids were small, my husband and I both worked production jobs at, respectively (and coincidentally), a plant that made bread bags and a paper bag factory. My job paid just slightly above minimum wage. The cost of day care for three toddlers, each spaced a year apart, was more than my paycheck. So I stayed home to take care of them. I returned to work when I found a job writing obituaries at the local newspaper, which allowed us to arrange our schedules so that we worked opposite shifts. Many people might prefer to work outside the home and to earn a paycheck for their labor, but the high cost of child care forces their hand.

In the United States, approximately 3 million households with children under 18 do not earn income and would be ineligible for benefits under Manchin’s proposal. That does not mean no one in the family is “working.” When I was a stay-at-home mom, we had three kids in diapers. The laundry alone was extraordinarily time-consuming; wrangling them at the grocery store and preparing all of their meals was exhausting, and took twice as long as it otherwise would. One of our kids suffered from night terrors, and another experienced sudden seizures, so I was “on the clock” for the night shift, too. Work requirements disregard the significant unpaid labor parents do on a daily basis; most of it performed by women. Men and women in the United States spent an average of 166 minutes and 271 minutes per day, respectively, on unpaid labor such as routine housework, child care and care for other household members, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Oxfam puts the value of unpaid labor performed by women worldwide at more than $10.8 trillion (assuming they were paid only minimum wage).

Work requirements make it difficult, if not impossible, for people to enroll in public programs that could help them. “The red tape associated with work requirements can cause people to lose access to vital supports even when they are working or should be exempt from the requirements,” noted a 2018 report from the Urban Institute. Plus, such rules just aren’t very effective at achieving their intended goals. After Kansas imposed work requirements and other restrictions on its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, one study found that the number of enrolled families plummeted; but with little accompanying increase in employment.

Instead, such restrictions exclude the people who most need the support, such as single parents without access to safe, affordable child care or families with children with special needs who need a parent home to care for them. For a low-income family, a parent losing a job is devastating enough, both financially and psychologically. Tying a desperately needed source of basic support to their employment punishes them twice. The child tax credit gives families a measure of stability, helping them plan their futures and cover emergencies. Tying it to work would further destabilize families hit with a job loss, leaving them without a safety net just when it’s most critical.

While Manchin may be among the loudest voices singing the “entitlement society” refrain right now, he has a lot of company. In June, a Wall Street Journal piece lamented “Biden’s Plan for an Entitlement Society.” Recently, a Wisconsin school district voted to opt out of a federal free-lunch program because some district officials speculated that students would become “spoiled” and develop an “addiction” to the free daily meals. (The district reversed its move after public outcry.)

In my reporting, I’ve spoken to families struggling to keep their heads above water. Receiving the expanded child tax credit “literally saved us,” one father told me. They’re spending this money on school supplies, on car payments so they can get to work, on making sure no one in their family goes hungry. They — and millions of parents like them — are just trying to take care of their children and pay a few bills. I don’t think it’s asking too much for them to be able to do that without enduring a lot of red tape or being forced to “earn” basic support in an arbitrary way. If extending a program that helps them keep food on the table is “entitlement,” then perhaps we should push for a society that’s more “entitled”; not less.

Bobbi Dempsey is a reporting fellow at the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and an economic justice fellow at Community Change.

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