“Work Requirements” or Real Jobs?

Jenny Brown

When I heard the debt-ceiling deal would target people in their fifties for new work requirements to get food stamps, I thought about my brother.

As a young man in the Navy, he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes — that’s the one where your body attacks your pancreas, and you need insulin to stay alive. At the time, treatment options were limited, and the Navy discharged him. But thanks to the V.A. and medical advances, he was OK.

He’s a talented mechanic, had steady work, and raised two wonderful kids. In his fifties, though, the toll of the disease meant a lot of sick days. Too many for his employers.

He’d get a new job but quickly run through his leave and end up being let go. Sometimes his boss was apologetic, but that didn’t pay the bills. Years of “resume Mondays” and job-hunting ensued. Turns out employers don’t want someone who has four good days then one bad day.

They Have It Backwards

Republican rhetoric that we need work requirements to push people into the job market has it backwards. Employers pushed them out. Plenty of people are not sick enough to get Social Security Disability, but not consistently vigorous enough for the boss.

Unsurprisingly, the push to add work requirements to social programs is being urged by billionaires. The owners of Uline (the packaging supplies giant) and the Mellon and Scaife families (banking, oil, aluminum) fund the Foundation for Government Accountability, a thinktank that specializes in lying about the effect of work requirements. They claim the policy has public support.

Of course, most people think if someone can work, but can’t find a job, the government should do something about it, to make sure there’s enough work to go around, and that it fits people’s needs and talents.

Congress has twice passed “full employment” bills, in 1945 and 1978. But they never created the jobs that would have made it real — for example, by funding the public sector to carry out needed projects.

That’s why in the 1990s, when Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers leader Tony Mazzocchi spearheaded an attempt to start a Labor Party in the U.S., the first campaign was a constitutional amendment to guarantee everyone the right to a job at a living wage.

The Labor Party made that its top priority because for working-class people to have the confidence to fight for better conditions at work, we need to know we won’t be left without a job. That’s why lower unemployment rates help encourage union organizing, and even strikes. And it’s why the billionaires are attacking, trying to force more people into the workforce. (It’s the same reason they’re against restrictions on child labor.)

Work for Food

Instead of a job guarantee, though, the way the work requirements for these programs actually function is that the government may provide you a job as a last resort, but there’s no paycheck! To get food stamps, with a few exceptions, you’re supposed to work 80 hours a month. Even at the monthly maximum of $281 in food vouchers, that works out to $3.51 an hour. Listen, just pay me a livable wage and I won’t need the damn food stamps.

The cherry on top of this stinkpile is that most people who get cut off due to changes in the law are eligible—they lose their benefits because of paperwork. Florida just dumped 250,000 people off Medicaid, 82 percent because they failed to “recertify.” Most found out when they went to a medical appointment and discovered they had no coverage.

That’s what these Republican slashes at the safety net and Democratic bean-counting to “end welfare as we know it” are about. They’re not about saving money in the budget, or getting people real jobs. They’re to make us all more desperate so we’ll take anything.

My brother made it to Social Security age, finally. Of course, one thing corporate Democrats and Republicans agree on is the age for that should be raised, too.

About the Author: Jenny Brown is an assistant editor at Labor Notes.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on July 6, 2023. Republished with permission.

Visit Workplace Fairness for information about workers’ rights.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.