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Declaring the War on Poverty ‘Largely Over,’ White House Urges Work Requirements for Aid

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers declared on Thursday that America’s long-running war on poverty “is largely over and a success,” as it made the case for imposing new work requirements on Americans who benefit from federal safety net programs.

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Jim Tankersley
Margot Sanger-Katz, New York Times

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers declared on Thursday that America’s long-running war on poverty “is largely over and a success,” as it made the case for imposing new work requirements on Americans who benefit from federal safety net programs.

The report contends that millions of Americans have become overly reliant on government help — and less self-sufficient — and provided data intended to support the administration’s goal of tying public benefit programs more closely to work.

In April, the president signed an executive order to expand the use of work requirements — which condition benefits on recipients working, preparing for work or participating in similar activities such as community service — and the White House has pushed for legislative changes to certain assistance programs to make such requirements more uniform.

The White House report, using census data from 2013, found that more than half of working-age, non-disabled beneficiaries of Medicaid, federal housing support and food stamps worked fewer than 20 hours per week in the month in which they received benefits from those programs. The report makes the case that receiving Medicaid or other federal benefits can discourage Americans from working more, since they lose access to those benefits if their incomes climb too high.

“Expanding work requirements in these non-cash welfare programs would improve self-sufficiency,” the report said, “with little risk of substantially reversing progress in addressing material hardship.”

Isabel V. Sawhill, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution who helped draft welfare overhaul legislation as a member of the Clinton administration, said the report was right to highlight self-sufficiency as a goal. But she criticized it for ignoring the need — and cost — to provide job training and search assistance to Americans who otherwise depend on federal assistance.

“People do need life rafts,” she said. “It’s unrealistic to think they don’t.”

The report, “Expanding Work Requirements in Non-Cash Welfare Programs,” declares that, by a certain measure of Americans’ buying power that includes both labor income and government assistance, poverty in the United States has nearly disappeared since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a “war on poverty” more than 50 years ago.

“Our poverty program has actually been enormously successful, if you measure it the appropriate way. It’s time to acknowledge we succeeded,” said Richard Burkhauser, a Cornell University economist who is a member of the Council of Economic Advisers. “All we’re saying is, in the months that you’re on the program, you should be ready to work.”

The report’s estimates may overstate the number of adults enrolled in those programs who are working less than 20 hours a week. The unemployment rate has declined substantially since 2013, falling by more than 3 percentage points to about 4 percent. Other reports that employ different methodologies find a substantially larger amount of work among program recipients.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calculated this year that three-quarters of food stamp recipients work within a year of participating in the program. That report suggests that Americans often use assistance programs as bridges to a new job, after they have lost previous employment.

The administration’s numbers may be particularly exaggerated for Medicaid. Under the Affordable Care Act, many states expanded their Medicaid program in 2014 to include more childless adults whose incomes bring them close to the poverty line. But the report examines adults who were enrolled in Medicaid in 2013, before the expansion, when most adults who were signed up were either pregnant women, the parents of young children or adults with extremely low incomes.

According to the council, about 53 percent of adult, non-disabled Medicaid beneficiaries worked less than 20 hours a week. Using a different set of government data from 2017, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that 62 percent of such people had full- or part-time jobs. Another 18 percent either lived in a household with another working adult. Council officials say the data set they drew upon, while older, is a better measure than the one Kaiser used.

Critics say the administration’s effort seeks to demonize the poor, particularly low-income minorities, and said the report is another weapon in the White House’s attempt to hurt the most vulnerable.

“It’s all part of a carefully calculated strategy to reinforce myths about the people these programs help,” said Rebecca Vallas, vice president of the poverty to prosperity program at the liberal Center for American Progress think tank, and “to smear these programs with a dog-whistle of welfare, in order to make them easier to cut.”

The Trump administration has been pushing to expand work requirements into state Medicaid programs, by encouraging states to apply for rule waivers to pursue work requirement pilot programs. So far, three state plans have been approved, and seven more are in the pipeline.

A federal judge in Washington overturned the waiver granted to Kentucky, the first state to have its work requirement approved. The judge found that the administration’s approval had been “arbitrary and capricious,” and that it had not demonstrated that a work requirement was consistent with the purpose of the Medicaid program, to “furnish medical assistance.”

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