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The GOP's new attack on SNAP and Medicaid makes zero sense

With unemployment already low, why add hurdles to Americans getting the benefits that they need?

House Republicans are still trying to figure out their demands in exchange for lifting the debt ceiling and, as a result, not tanking the global economy. One of the few ideas that they’ve begun to consolidate around is also one of the most nonsensical in today’s job market: work requirements for receiving government assistance.

Specifically, Republicans are looking to raise the bar for millions of Americans who currently are enrolled in Medicaid or food stamps programs. The claim is that doing so would push people currently receiving benefits to find employment or work longer hours and have the added effect of bringing down the federal deficit. It’s a nice theory, but one that blithely ignores how much the harm it will unleash outweighs any potential benefit.

It’s also a scheme that’s been tried before when it comes to Medicaid, which provides health insurance to mostly low-income Americans. Under the Trump administration, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services encouraged states to boot from the program enrollees who weren’t actively seeking jobs. After a number of court challenges, the only state that actually managed to set up such a system was Arkansas, where 18,000 people lost their coverage over the course of seven months.

It’s a nice theory, but one that blithely ignores how much the harm it will unleash outweighs any potential benefit.

But the policy didn’t punish Arkansans that conservatives would characterize as slackers on the government dole. Most of those who were kicked off were eligible for an exemption and didn’t fill out the proper paperwork, or they were working but failed to notify the state of the hours they’d clocked. And here’s the really damning thing: A 2019 study found that there was no marked increase in employment because of the policy. That means Arkansas’ adoption of work requirements hurt people by making them jump through hoops to prove their need, but it didn’t even have the promised effect of boosting workforce participation.

And when it comes to food stamps, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) “already requires many adults without children to seek employment and training,” The Washington Post reported. “But GOP leaders argue that the rules are too lax, exempt too many beneficiaries from work and open the door for states to make too many exceptions.” If a proposal to add those requirements to Americans without kids aged 49-65 were to go into effect, as many as 10 million Americans could lose their benefits.

Republicans are choosing to pursue these policies at a time when the monthly unemployment rate continues to hover around 3.5%, a near-historic low. And while the labor force participation rate is still below what it was before the pandemic, it’s also been edging up as well. And in truly devastating news for the “nobody wants to work” meme that conservatives have been pushing, more Americans aged 25-54 are working than at any point since May 2001. If anything, the Brookings Institution recently concluded, the smaller labor force is “primarily because of deaths related to COVID-19 and reduced immigration.”

These new work requirements would be paired with deep cuts to both programs’ budgets if the GOP’s current policy lodestar, former Trump official Russ Vought, gets his wish. And while the proposed fiscal bloodletting would add up to hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade, they would have little impact on the overall federal budget. Pushing it as an answer to America’s reliance on deficit spending, then, is something of a red herring.

It’s about forcing desperate people to provide cheap labor to businesses that are unwilling to pay fair wages.

So, if this push isn’t about the nation’s fiscal health and it isn’t about lowering unemployment, then what’s it about? It’s about forcing desperate people to provide cheap labor to businesses that are unwilling to pay fair wages. The fact that in 2018 about a third of families that received SNAP benefits had two or more people working and three-quarters had at least one person working belies the claim that the program is encouraging unemployment and that work requirements are necessary. It also shatters the myth that SNAP is only for the unemployed.

If Republicans really believe otherwise, there’s already something of a natural experiment under way. Last month, the pandemic-aid boost to SNAP benefits ended, sharply reducing the monthly amount allotted to as many as 16 million households. And because we’re approaching the end of a pandemic rule that prevented states from booting people off Medicaid during the emergency, we’re going to see an estimated 5 to 14 million people losing health coverage over the next year.

If Republicans’ rhetoric about benefits and work are correct, then these shifts will mean an increased number of people rushing into the labor market to make up for the loss in government assistance. But rather than wait to be proven wrong, they’re already trying to codify this policy in exchange for ensuring the full faith and credit of the American government. If this is really the war the House GOP wants to fight, it should do so during negotiations over the annual budget — which it still hasn’t finished drafting — and not hold the debt ceiling hostage in its attempt to force through such a needlessly cruel policy.

I understand in some twisted way why the GOP thinks this issue is a winner. It’s a continuation of the same rhetoric that led to “welfare reform”; and, unfortunately, convincing Americans that their money ought not go to those other, lazy people has never lost its currency.

CORRECTION (April 13, 2023, 1:06 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article and the headline misstated one of the programs to which Republicans want to add work requirements. It’s Medicaid, not Medicare.