WASHINGTON – Work requirements for federal aid programs have emerged as a sticking point in ongoing negotiations over raising the nation’s debt ceiling, and President Joe Biden has signaled openness to a possible compromise even as many in his party have balked.
Legislation passed by the House in April would impose new or expanded work requirements for three federal programs — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the food aid formerly known as food stamps; Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which offers aid to low-income families with children; and Medicaid assistance for adults without dependents.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is insisting that the proposed work requirements be part of negotiations with Biden over raising the debt limit and avoiding a national default. While Biden has signaled that making any changes to benefits for Medicaid is a non-starter, he has been less clear when asked about House GOP proposals to strengthen work requirements for SNAP and TANF.
Asked Wednesday about his openness on work requirements, Biden told reporters “there could be a few others” but “not anything of any consequence.”
A look at the work requirements, who they could affect and the politics behind them:
THE HOUSE BILL
Republicans have for years tried to boost work requirements for federal aid and Democrats have been mostly successful in holding them off. McCarthy has said that there will be no deal this time if Democrats don’t agree to changes.
Creating new work requirements for Medicaid would create the most savings out of the GOP work proposals, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office — $109 billion over the next decade. The Republican proposal would require for the first time that some able-bodied Medicaid recipients without dependents participate in work-related activities for at least 80 hours a month.
Biden said on Sunday that he will not accept anything that takes away people’s health care coverage.
“I voted for tougher aid programs that’s in the law now, but for Medicaid it’s a different story,” he said, referring to 1996 welfare reforms passed when he was in the Senate. “And so I’m waiting to hear what their exact proposal is.”
On SNAP, the bill would save $11 billion over 10 years by raising the maximum age for existing standards that require able-bodied adults who do not live with dependents to work or attend training programs. While current law applies those standards to recipients under the age of 50, the House bill would raise the age to include adults 55 and under. The bill would also decrease the number of exemptions that states can grant to some recipients subject to those requirements.
Lastly the House legislation would save a small amount — under $10 million, according to CBO — by boosting work requirements for some adults on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
WHO WOULD BE AFFECTED
The Congressional Budget Office estimated that 600,000 Medicaid recipients could become uninsured, 275,000 SNAP recipients could fall off the rolls each month and that the TANF changes could “reduce state grants slightly” if the GOP proposal became law.
Democrats and anti-hunger groups have strongly objected. They say the changes could cause needy Americans to lose benefits without saving the government much money or putting many people back to work.
“There’s no evidence that this is going to make people better off, it just takes their food assistance away from them,” says Dottie Rosenbaum, a senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which has analyzed the effects of the cuts.
House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries said on CNBC that it is “entirely unreasonable” to consider new work requirements in the context of a default, especially since “there are already significant work requirements that exist under law.”
Rebuffed for years — even when they controlled both chambers of Congress — Republicans believe this is the moment they can achieve new work standards for the aid programs.
“Let’s help people get lifted out of poverty into jobs,” McCarthy said Wednesday, laughing off Biden's comments that he wouldn't support anything of consequence.
McCarthy has repeatedly noted that Biden voted for the 1996 welfare overhaul and that then-President Bill Clinton had signed it. That law created the TANF program and the work rules for food stamps.
“This is a senator who voted for work requirements,” he said of Biden.
Biden’s stance on the full package of work requirements — and whether he would accept any of the changes — is so far uncertain. After seeming to draw a red line on the Medicaid cuts over the weekend, leaving the other work proposals as an open question, he tweeted Monday that the GOP bill “would put a million older adults at risk of losing their food assistance and going hungry. Rather than push Americans into poverty, we should reduce the deficit by making sure the wealthy and large corporations pay their fair share in taxes.”
On Wednesday, Biden said he is not going to accept any new requirements in those programs that impact “the medical health needs of people.”
“I voted years ago for the work requirements that exist,“ Biden said. “But it’s possible there could be a few others, but not anything of any consequence.”
While trying to keep the country from a devastating default, Biden is also navigating his own party politics. Democrats are pressuring him to draw a hard line with McCarthy on any new requirements that could cut benefits.
“I can’t believe we’re talking about using poor people as hostages” over the debt limit, said Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga. “I’m not having any of that.”
Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said the cuts “would harm people, people in rural areas, black, brown, indigenous folks.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has been quieter on the subject, deferring to Biden. But the New York Democrat told reporters on Tuesday that “you know the feelings of my caucus on work requirements.”
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said he has faith in Biden but doesn’t see how it will get resolved in time.
“The president always wants to try to find common ground. That’s why he won his election,” Murphy said. “I appreciate that about him. I think the size of the asks on the table from House Republicans make it pretty hard to get a deal in time to stem the crisis.”
Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.