The COVID-19 pandemic has caused more than financial disruption. As families stay home, businesses close and kids learn from screens, one of America’s most painful preexisting conditions — lonely lives without purpose — has been aggravated.
Policymakers don’t usually have the power to solve such problems. But in this case, they can implement a return to a tool that cuts to the heart of our economic downturn and social atomization: work. As President Ronald Reagan said, “the best social program is a job.”
Americans have long understood and overwhelmingly supported work requirements in welfare. Yet, most work requirements for able-bodied adults enrolled in welfare programs are suspended due to COVID-19. These requirements should be reinstated and expanded, now more than ever.
Work requirements are flexible enough to meet this moment. Can’t find paid work during the downturn? Train for your next job or volunteer part-time at a food bank and build your skills. Can’t go to your job because of the pandemic? Worried about your health or a vulnerable family member? Apply for a good-cause exemption.
Flexible work requirements for able-bodied adults save jobs, tax dollars and futures. They also make the safety net more resilient by empowering states to focus limited welfare dollars on the neediest families. Yet, months into the pandemic, some continue to get this backward. In The Hill, an opinion editorial author called work requirements “onerous.” In The Washington Post, they were called “catastrophic.”
Before the pandemic, work requirements weren’t onerous or catastrophic. They were wildly successful. In Arkansas, food stamp work requirements helped enrollees more than triple their income within two years and saved taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. When they expanded work requirements to Medicaid, more than 14,000 able-bodied Arkansans left Medicaid due to rising incomes.
But the power of work requirements extends beyond a person’s paycheck. We see their real power in a person’s connection to their community. Open your cell phone contact list and count how many people you could call for a ride from a broken-down car, or for an emergency babysitter.
How many of those people did you meet through work? How many did you meet through an activity that would count toward a work requirement, like school, training or volunteering?
Work anchors the daily lives of entire communities. Maybe that’s why, even as the pandemic continues, states like Florida and Missouri have begun to reinstate their flexible work requirements in food stamps. Other states should follow suit by reinstating their existing requirements and expanding them across more welfare programs.
Across America, we all understand the value of work most clearly from our own experiences, mine included. I’ve lived in many different places, from Richmond, Va., to Winston-Salem, N.C., to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. I’ve lived in poor and rural counties in Western Virginia and Northern New Hampshire and in poor and urban neighborhoods in New Orleans. As an Army officer, I’ve worked with soldiers from every kind of wholesome and broken background.
Reflecting on all the places and people I’ve come to know — all the friends and neighbors who have overcome financial and family challenges, Leo Tolstoy comes to mind. He wrote that every happy family is happy in the same way, and every unhappy family is unhappy in their own way.
In my experience, the same is true of individuals struggling with poverty and loneliness. They each struggle in their own way. Family breakdown, drugs or alcohol, a lack of quality education, layoffs and generational cycles of dependency are only the most common barriers. But all individuals and families escape hardship in the same way: work.
Up-by-your bootstraps idealism doesn’t solve everything. But work usually is enough to live a comfortable life. And when it isn’t, it’s a big part of the solution.
Whatever pleasures, privileges or opportunities you’ve enjoyed in your own life are probably the direct result of your hard work, or that of a family member who had you in mind while working. The value of work is more than material — it provides meaning, especially during a personal or national crisis.
During this pandemic, as we look for ways to protect the safety net for the truly needy, lift people up and rebuild our economy, flexible work requirements in welfare may not solve everything. But they will be a big part of the solution.
Scott Centorino is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Government Accountability, where he focuses on welfare and health care reform policies that promote opportunity for more Americans. He is also a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve, serving as a judge advocate in the JAG Corps.