Workfare still superior to welfare

Published May 25, 2023

By John Hood

In Washington, Republican lawmakers are insisting that any deal with the Biden administration to raise the federal debt ceiling be accompanied by stricter work requirements for such programs as cash welfare, nutrition assistance, and Medicaid. In Raleigh, Republican state senators tried to make work requirements a condition for expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, though the final deal fell short of what they’d hoped.  

For North Carolinians of a certain age — or for North Carolinians of any age who’ve studied the political history of their state — the idea of requiring work in order to receive government benefits ought to sound familiar. It’s a hardy perennial.

In 1992, for example, Democrat-turned-Republican Lauch Faircloth employed the issue to great effect against Terry Sanford, the incumbent Democratic senator. “I’m for workfare, not welfare,” Faircloth said so often that it clearly got under his opponent’s skin. “We’ve seen a lot of demagoguery, talking about workfare and welfare,” Sanford complained a few days before the election. “I honestly don’t know what workfare is.”

Voters didn’t know exactly what workfare might look like in practice, either, though most responded favorably to the concept of requiring employment in exchange for benefits. Faircloth beat Sanford.

A couple of years later, another prominent North Carolinian picked up the idea and ran with it. “Our society is based on work,” he explained. “Work helps us reach our goals. But too many people don’t have that sense of pride that comes from working hard and supporting themselves.”

While this leader continued to believe government should provide public assistance to needy North Carolinians, he worried that doing so without conditions tended to create perverse incentives. “I believe strongly that welfare recipients should be required to work,” he announced. “They should work for their benefits. The sooner we start moving families off welfare rolls and into the workforce, the better off they and their children will be. We want to change the welfare system so that it builds responsibility instead of dependence. So that it builds pride instead of hopelessness. So that it encourages families to stay together instead of tearing them apart. So that it discourages our teenagers from having children when they are still children themselves.”

I let the prior paragraph run long so you wouldn’t think I was quoting former Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt out of context.

He wasn’t the only state governor to pioneer concepts later enshrined in the landmark 1996 welfare-reform bill. Republicans in Wisconsin, Michigan, and elsewhere got there first. But Hunt was nimble enough to marry his longstanding belief in activist government with a clear-eyed acceptance of personal agency.

Individuals who stay in school, wait until marriage to have children, and work full-time (or marry someone who does) are very unlikely to be poor. This “success sequence” is easier stated than followed, of course, especially by young people with short time horizons and weak impulse control (we were all young once, so we all know this to be true).

There are no magic wands here. No government program can make us wiser. But governments ought at least not tempt us to act unwisely. For able-bodied recipients of public assistance, it makes sense to require work in exchange. Not that long ago, both Republican and Democratic politicians agreed with this concept, differing only in the details of implementation.

Back in the 1990s, then-U.S. Senator Joe Biden was one of those Democrats who supported work requirements. “I voted for tougher aid programs [that are] in the law now,” President Biden pointed out a few days ago, though he doesn’t think such a condition is appropriate for receiving Medicaid. Does that mean the president would be open to strengthening work requirements for other programs such as nutrition assistance? If he does, that will incense some progressives. At the same time, some conservatives are suspicious of public-assistance programs — especially federal ones — even if they contain work requirements.

Where are voters? Well, broadly speaking, they’re for workfare, not welfare.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, Mountain Folk and Forest Folk, combine epic fantasy with early American history.