Work: Opportunity or Penalty?

Published apr. 17, 2018

Last week, the Trump administration issued an executive order calling for new and strengthened work requirements on the nation’s poverty alleviation programs. The order was viewed as a way to promote economic mobility for recipients and accountability for U.S. taxpayer investments.

JFF has long supported programs and strategies that prepare low-income individuals for family- supporting careers. It is core to our mission. However, work is a loaded term, especially when it is required in exchange for benefits and services under the nation’s safety net programs.

We all agree that good jobs are key to economic mobility. Even so, a job alone, without adequate supports and skills development, cannot help most individuals on public assistance dig their way out of poverty. The needs of low-income individuals and families are complex. Americans who are eligible for federal public assistance programs tend to have education and skill deficits that stand in the way of their access to family-supporting careers. And many individuals who receive public assistance—whether health care, emergency food, housing, or even income supplements—are already working but making wages so low that they continue to live in poverty and qualify for assistance to meet their families’ basic needs.

To address these problems, we must develop a comprehensive set of strategies that, yes, help low-income individuals find employment quickly but, more importantly, help them attain, over time, the skills and credentials required to secure good, family-supporting careers. This can be accomplished in part through a job—but not as a standalone strategy.

For the purposes of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, we agree with the administration’s new expanded definition of work, included in the executive order, which includes “job training, apprenticeships, career and technical education training, job searches, basic education, and education directly related to current or future employment.” But this expanded definition of work must be accompanied by:

  • Elimination of the current 12-month time limit on education/training activities and the 30 percent cap on participation in education activities—both of which arbitrarily limit TANF recipients’ attainment of needed skills;  
  • Incentives for pathways approaches to education and training, including expanded opportunities for high-quality, work-based learning for individuals on public assistance, such as apprenticeships and other strategies that build skills development into work; 
  • Adoption of cross-system performance metrics, such as those provided in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which identify employment, earnings, retention, credential attainment, and educational progress as outcomes sought after under TANF; and  
  • Adequate supports and assistance to help recipients transition into independence. 

We also agree that employment and skills development services for public assistance recipients should be streamlined and carried out through the nation’s workforce development system (under the WIOA) and our network of community colleges. Any attempts at program consolidation, however, must not include cuts to already inadequate federal funding. And we seriously question the application of work requirements on other needs-based programs, especially health care and emergency food assistance.

Work can be a powerful tool, particularly when implemented as a learning and pathways strategy. If imposed in a punitive and standalone fashion, however, it will only result in the loss of benefits for many families who are in need and the continuation of generational poverty. If we are to resolve the economic inequities in our society, we have to provide all Americans with the tools and supports they need to achieve the American dream. Simple placement into low-skilled, low-wage employment, accompanied by the loss of benefits, is no one’s dream.