Working for Welfare Not Faring Well?

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Analysts debate the effectiveness of work requirements for recipients of cash assistance in Kansas.

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In one of his fictitious adventures, the character Baron Munchhausen saves himself from drowning by pulling his own hair upwards, lifting himself out of the mire. Critics of recent state efforts to impose stringent work requirements on recipients of government assistance find the effectiveness of these requirements as a “path out of poverty” just as implausible as Munchhausen’s stunt.

Yet, in a 2017 study conducted by the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA), analysts found that work requirements added to a cash assistance program for needy families in Kansas resulted in greater compliance with program requirements and better outcomes for these families. Two analyses by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), however, dispute the FGA report’s claim that “Kansans thrive after leaving welfare.”

The FGA researchers report four main gains from Kansas’s reforms. First, families who were removed from welfare after failing to meet the new work requirements saw earnings more than double within one year, and their incomes continued to rise over each of the four years in which the state tracked their financial circumstances.

Second, these families reported higher income and greater earned income tax credits than when they were receiving government support, as measured by the combined value of prior earnings, tax credits, and welfare payments.

The researchers also found that able-bodied adults who were removed from welfare gained employment in hundreds of different industries. This diversity, they suggest, refutes the common criticism that recently removed job seekers only find low-wage, entry-level employment.

Fourth, the FGA analysts argue that the work requirements have enabled the state welfare program to “better manage resources for the truly needy,” as fewer able-bodied Kansans depend on it and more current recipients work while enrolled in it.

Based on their report and others like it, the researchers suggest expanding work requirements to all welfare programs and curtailing states’ ability to waive work requirements on a case by case basis. For them, the data demonstrate that welfare reforms such as strict sanctions for violating work requirements have been “wildly successful.”

The CBPP analysts have called these findings into question, however, challenging the claim that the Kansas reforms helped poor families. Instead of focusing on total earnings for the full group of families removed from the program for failing to meet work requirements, as the FGA researchers did, the CBPP analysts examined the average earnings of the typical removed family. Under this revised model, CBPP analysts found that families remained well below the federal poverty line even four years after exiting the program.

Furthermore, the CBPP analysts found that “the vast majority” of families removed for failing to meet work requirements had “deep-poverty earnings.” One year after removal, three out of four former recipients earned below 50 percent of the federal poverty line—including some who had no earnings at all. For individuals about whom the state had data for four years, more than two in three still had such deep-poverty earnings in year four.

The CBPP researchers also dispute that income gains were as large as the FGA claims. They note that in reaching its final figure, the FGA relied on extrapolation for those parents for whom only one year of post-welfare data were available, though Jonathan Ingram, a co-author of the FGA report, has subsequently defended this methodology.

In response to the FGA claim that the reforms have made Kansas’s welfare program “better equipped to help the truly needy,” the CBPP analysts argue that decreased enrollment may simply indicate that fewer families received welfare payments, not that fewer families needed it. Similarly, the analysts distinguish studies like FGA’s, which only describe outcomes, from studies that explain why certain outcomes occur, which would require comparing a group that faced tougher welfare requirements with one that did not.

The CBPP analysts paint a less promising picture of the efficacy of Kansas’s changes to its welfare program. First, they demonstrate that work rates for parents leaving welfare were just as high in the year before exiting as after. According to the analysts, this suggests that many parents enrolled in the state welfare program only as a short-term safety net when temporarily out of work—exactly the kind of scenario that the program is designed to address.

Second, although most parents worked while enrolled, this employment proved to be unsteady and often short-term. Accordingly, when the CBPP researchers compared the average employment rate in the quarters before and after exiting for failing to meet work requirements, they found only a limited increase in employment. To the researchers, these persistent struggles indicate that Kansas’s welfare reforms did not remedy barriers to employment—such as lower education and volatile work schedules—that many post-welfare families faced.

In fact, parents removed from welfare due to failure to meet the work requirements presented some of the highest rates of deep poverty, researchers found. One year after removal, their median earnings were 8 percent of the federal poverty level—only $133 per month. Even by the fourth year, their earnings reached just 11 percent of that level. All in all, by year four, eight in ten parents removed from the Kansas program for failing work requirements had either earnings below the federal poverty level or no earnings at all, CBPP reports.

According to the CBPP researchers, these conclusions indicate that Kansas’s welfare reform has not raised as many families out of poverty as proponents claim it has, and “should serve as a cautionary tale” to policymakers.