A debt ceiling deal can’t come on the backs of Pennsylvanians in need | Opinion
We should be supporting families — not imposing work requirements that don’t work
A sign alerting customers about SNAP benefits is displayed at a grocery store in New York City(Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images/Maryland Matters).
By Louise Hayes and Peter Zurflieh
As a condition of averting a default on the national debt, the House majority is insisting on increased work requirements on Medicaid, SNAP, and TANF cash assistance. And while President Biden is defending Medicaid, he has not taken increased work requirements for SNAP or TANF off the table.
The debt ceiling needs to be increased while adhering to President Biden’s previously-stated principle: no budget cuts or policy changes that increase poverty or take away health care and food assistance from people who count on it.
Work requirements don’t work: they cut off eligible people from supports they need to get by, without helping anyone get ahead through better jobs.
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Most people receiving benefits are already working, cannot work because of disabilities or caregiving responsibilities, or are facing short-term crises and will work again within the year. But work requirements add onerous paperwork obligations that few people in poverty can meet. Cutting off cash assistance, food support, or health care will not help anyone get a job or achieve long term stability.
In particular, TANF (for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) is our bottom-line safety net for the poorest American families – many of whom have escaped domestic violence or are dealing with severe trauma.
TANF payments help families with little or no income afford the basics like rent and utilities, food, diapers, personal hygiene items, and transportation. In most counties in Pennsylvania, TANF pays $403 a month in cash assistance for a family of three (a figure that has not been increased since 1990). TANF already has tough work requirements with extremely strict paperwork rules, but the House bill would double down on those requirements in ways that states would find impossible to achieve.
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Work requirements are rooted in racist stereotypes that people who receive benefits do not work and must be compelled to do so. These requirements ignore the realities of low-wage work, which often provides unstable hours and is unforgiving about personal emergencies. The provisions in the House bill would make it impossible for states to meet the tougher work rules, strongly incentivizing states to cut off or deny assistance to families with the greatest needs.
The House legislation places roughly 28,000 children on TANF in Pennsylvania at risk of losing the cash benefits they receive. Taking cash benefits away from these families would push them deeper into poverty, forcing many of these families to experience homelessness, increased child welfare involvement, and increased health issues such as diabetes and heart disease.
Moreover, if Pennsylvania as a whole does not meet the tougher TANF work requirements – as is very likely – it could lose up to $150 million a year in federal block grant funds, taking away significant funds that the state now uses to provide cash assistance to these families, as well as child care for low-income families more broadly.
We learned in the pandemic that giving families income support through the Child Tax Credit reduced poverty and helped families avoid harmful outcomes like evictions, homelessness and child welfare involvement.
Supporting families is the path we should be taking, not counterproductive work requirements that would worsen the lives of the lowest income families.
Louise Hayes is an attorney at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. Peter Zurflieh is an attorney at Community Justice Project.
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